But the core U.S. interest is preventing sudden price spikes, rather than preventing increases generally. The U.S. and other economies have prospered at oil prices above $100 or $150 a barrel, showing they can adjust to high prices if they rise gradually. Rapid price increases (or decreases), however, can endanger the international economy. Saudi Arabia has traditionally played a role in helping to avoid such spikes. During the first Gulf War, the Saudis ramped up their production capacity to offset the loss of Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil in the market. In 2011, the Saudis upped their production to over ten million barrels per day, a thirty-year high, to compensate for the Libya conflict.
Two developments, however, have made Saudi Arabia’s role as a “swing producer” less important for maintaining a steady oil price. First, the United States has emerged as the new swing producer, capable of responding rapidly to price swings through market mechanisms in ways that rival Saudi Arabia’s central pricing model. Second, Middle Eastern crises don’t have the impact on oil prices that is commonly supposed. This is in part because of America’s new role as a swing producer, but also because the market has recognized that instability in oil-producing regions does not automatically lead to long-term production decreases.
The result has been that oil markets have largely stopped responding to political crises in the region, even when they involve oil-producing states. Leaders of these states (or those who control the oil fields within them) tend to sell the oil. Today, even with large oil producers such as Libya and Iraq engulfed in civil war, the price of oil has fallen sharply. Thus, while protecting the free flow of Persian Gulf oil is still necessary, significant onshore military resources are not needed to do so. Indeed, maintaining U.S. military assets already on-shore in the Gulf, particularly the naval base in Bahrain, might someday not be worth the political cost.
WHAT MOST motivates the use of U.S. military force in the Middle East today is, broadly, terrorism. The president set the goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS and denying terrorist networks safe haven from which to plot and carry out attacks against the U.S. homeland.
Currently, the breakdown of state authority in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq has opened up large territories that are controlled by, or at risk of coming under the control of, extremist Islamist organizations. Many of these organizations, such as ISIS (Iraq/Syria) or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), are more insurgent than terrorist, but they often resort to the tactic of terrorism. Many U.S. security officials and outside observers worry about another 9/11-style attack on the U.S. homeland, especially in light of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. The failure of American train-and-equip programs to build partner capacity to deal with terrorists and Islamic insurgencies—in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen—will stoke these fears and generate louder calls for the deployment of U.S. combat forces.
Fortunately, this fear is largely misplaced. U.S. military forces in the region are neither necessary nor even useful for avoiding terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland. It is no longer 2001. The United States has become extremely effective at preventing terrorist attacks that emanate from abroad. Despite the endless predictions of such attacks, there has not been another 9/11-type attack in over fourteen years. Terrorist safe havens have existed throughout this period, but as Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out, safe havens have little to do with America’s terrorism problem or with the reason the United States has enjoyed relative immunity from foreign terrorist attacks since 9/11.
Instead, more effective U.S. intelligence and border controls have been the keys to ensuring that planned, organized, multiple-person attacks are extremely difficult to carry out undetected—particularly from abroad. The terrorist groups have gotten the message and have largely devoted themselves to their own very pressing problems in defending their positions in areas under their control rather than planning and executing terrorist attacks against the United States. The U.S. homeland-security system, in short, is working. Of course, there can always be lone-wolf or small-scale terrorist attacks in the United States, such as the two-person attack in San Bernardino, California in December 2015. But U.S. military deployments in the Middle East would not prevent such self-starters—and, arguably, would encourage more attacks.
U.S. military forces in the Middle East are also not useful for destroying terrorist safe havens. All experts agree that groups like ISIS and AQAP are symptoms of the political and sectarian struggles in the region. U.S. military forces can continue to inflict military defeats on such groups, but to what end? The U.S.-led multiyear drone and special-operations campaign against AQAP in Yemen killed many key AQAP leaders. But the group continues to thrive and is expanding into the governance vacuums created by the Yemeni Civil War. In Iraq, even a nine-year U.S. occupation was fruitless in creating an inclusive political order in Baghdad, and in the process it inspired the creation of ISIS. In Afghanistan, a similar occupation is extending into its fifteenth year, yet the amount of territory under Taliban control is expanding.
Without progress by local actors on the political front, killing leaders or defeating such groups militarily will do little to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States. Another, perhaps worse, group will simply arise. The United States has proven extraordinarily bad at promoting this kind of local political progress in the Middle East. Moreover, taking the lead against such groups is probably the course of action most likely to draw their attention toward attacks on the U.S. homeland.
U.S. failures to transform political orders in the Middle East are not just a question of the people in charge, political will, strategy or policy implementation. The dismal record of U.S. efforts at political and social engineering in the Middle East also reflects the reality that the U.S. government is not adept at playing regional politics or reforming governing institutions. The United States does not come to these countries without baggage. To the contrary, it has a long and troubled history with the region. The United States has invaded, occupied or bombed twelve Muslim-majority countries in the broader region since 1980 with precious little goodwill to show for it.
And while some regional politicians may act like allies when they want U.S. help, one of the few issues that unites nearly the entire political spectrum of the Arab Middle East is antipathy toward the United States. So, for example, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—whom the U.S. helped bring to power last year—said, of reintroducing U.S. ground troops into Iraq, “We don’t want them. We won’t allow them. Full Stop.” To another outlet, he reiterated, “Any foreign ground troops on Iraqi soil will be treated as enemy troops.”
That is the perspective of a U.S. ally. America’s enemies, and they are legion, will probably be even less hospitable. The inevitable mistakes and collateral damage caused by U.S. forces, as always happens during conflict, are unlikely to improve America’s image in the Arab world and may increase the desire to commit terrorism against the United States. In short, as Donald Rumsfeld once put it, the use of U.S. military force against terrorist safe havens unnecessarily risks creating more terrorists than it kills, while failing to improve the political conditions that can actually eliminate terrorist safe havens.
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT has had considerable success in preventing the development and use of WMD in the Middle East. Although the Obama administration failed to deter the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, Syria’s chemical-weapons disarmament and the Iranian nuclear agreement were major triumphs for American diplomacy and multilateral cooperation. In the short-to-medium term, the nuclear agreement with Iran has probably forestalled Arab countries (and Turkey) from seeking nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the risk that Iran could cheat, sneak out or break out over the next ten to fifteen years remains a concern.
Crucially, U.S. success on the WMD front in the Middle East has been the result of effective multilateral cooperation and other nonkinetic tools, including military assistance, security assurances, multilateral sanctions and cyber operations. In the event that Saudi Arabia, Egypt or any other Arab country threatened to develop a nuclear weapons program, the United States would retain a powerful capacity to deter, prevent and respond to acquisition.
In addition to organizing international sanctions and diplomatic isolation, the United States could tighten export controls, step up interdiction efforts and cut off security-force assistance to Arab partners. The United States could also, in extremis, cut off diplomatic relations with any Arab country that was in material breach of its NPT obligations or conduct its own counter-WMD attacks. America could also offer positive incentives to deter WMD proliferation, including extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella and increasing military assistance and intelligence cooperation.
Iran’s main incentive to acquire nuclear weapons is to deter U.S. conventional attacks. To the extent that a lower U.S. military presence in the region diminishes those fears, Iran would be less likely to resume its bid for nuclear weapons once the restrictions on its program expire.