Offshore Balancing Strategy Can Correct America’s Middle East Approach
A zero-based assessment of U.S. interests and policies in the Greater Middle East is long overdue. The new geostrategic map of the region, the legacy of failures, and the imperatives of great power competition require a new mindset.
A GROWING chorus of critics, Right and Left, are calling for a greatly diminished role in the Middle East and its place in U.S. global strategy. Perhaps the most compelling was a confessional last year in the Wall Street Journal by Martin Indyk, a veteran Middle East hand and former ambassador to Israel, explaining why as the headline read, “The Middle East Isn’t Worth it Anymore.” Nearly twenty years after 9/11, the United States has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the process, destabilizing the region. The Iraq invasion set off a cascade of turmoil and conflict in the region amid a still damaged Arab Muslim civilization, with few tangible benefits. The legacy of failure and substantially changed circumstances with regard to two longstanding core concerns—oil flows and Israel’s security—add up to greatly reduced and reconfigured U.S. interests both in the region and in U.S. global strategy.
But American national security policy seems impervious to its own failures and the big geostrategic and geo-economic changes underway. It’s running on bureaucratic inertia. The United States has up to sixty thousand combat personnel in the Greater Middle East (GME) depending on the ebb and flow of the situation and rings the region with air and naval bases. Yet by all appearances, the ongoing U.S. military presence has had almost zero impact on the deepening multilayered civil and internationalized conflicts in the region: Syria, Libya, Yemen, festering instability in Iraq, on-going tensions with Iran, nineteen years and counting in Afghanistan, state failure in Lebanon, and jihadism has hardly been extinguished. There is little acknowledgment of the limits of U.S. power, though the lack of Americans’ appetite for more conflict is obvious to key regional actors who are filling the vacuum as Donald Trump withdrew troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a significant factor shaping strategic realignments. It is an auspicious moment for President Joe Biden, with ambitious and urgent domestic priorities, to recalibrate U.S. interests in the region.
EVEN IF it were not for twenty years of disastrously spent blood and treasure on the campaign to transform Afghanistan and Iraq, there are more fundamental reasons to rethink U.S. strategic interests. Foremost is the altered global energy supply and demand system. Since the 1973–74 oil crisis, hydrocarbons have been a core driver of U.S. policy in the Middle East—the 1980 Carter Doctrine, declaring the flow of Gulf oil a vital interest. Yet U.S. oil dependence on the region is no more. The shale revolution, which has led to the United States’ new status as the world’s top producer of oil and gas, has fundamentally altered the geopolitics of energy. The center of gravity of global hydrocarbon production has already shifted from the Persian Gulf to the Western Hemisphere. Canadian oil sands, a partially reforming Mexico, and Brazil’s ultra-deepwater reserves all point to a new post-OPEC reality. This casts the U.S. “strategic partnership” with the Saudis in a very different light.
Of course, it is still a global oil market. Seventy-five percent of Mideast oil is exported to Asia: China, Japan, South Korea, and India have a growing stake in the Middle East. A major disruption and price spike anywhere produce a price spike everywhere. But for how long? Given the dependency of the Gulf states on exporting oil and the robust strategic petroleum reserves of the United States and other International Energy Association members, the odds of a protracted disruption by military conflict are low and manageable. An example of the global resilience of the current hydrocarbon supply and demand system is the very temporary spike (measured in days) in the price of petroleum following the successful Iranian missile attacks on key Saudi production facilities during the late summer of 2019. In any case, we are at the beginning of a transition to a post-petroleum economy that will transform global geopolitics. Middle East oil is important, but not necessarily a vital interest. The body language of Trump’s non-response to the Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities points in this direction, the 1980 Carter Doctrine notwithstanding.
The accelerating electrification of ground transportation and the rise of renewable energy coupled with efficient electrical energy storage may lead to the peak of global petroleum demand by the end of this decade. A secular decline in global natural gas consumption is much further in the future. After all, it is the one hydrocarbon with a much smaller greenhouse gas footprint than petroleum or coal, and one where the United States is now a major exporter. What do U.S. interests in the Middle East look like in 2035 or 2040 (possibly sooner) when hydrocarbons may be used as much for making plastic products, fertilizer, and hydrogen as for fuel? By the late 2020s, there is the possibility that natural gas will become the feedstock for the production of hydrogen that is the energy source of a wide range of fuel cell-powered vehicles.
OF EQUAL import is the geostrategic transformation of the GME that has flowed out the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, the rise and fall of the quasi-state ISIS, and the massive upheavals following the “Arab Spring” that became “Winter” with the emergence of the protracted civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the short regional war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The still-unfolding strategic realignment of Arab Sunni states with Israel is a reflection of these failures as well as those of the United States.
First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only no longer the center of the region’s turmoil—it has become a second-order issue. As Martin Indyk explained, “Hard as it is for me to admit it, a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem is not a vital American interest. It is a vital Israeli interest.” If a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution arrived tomorrow it would likely have little impact on stability or peace in the region writ large.
This is the case not just because of forty plus years of failed diplomacy, but also new realities in a changed geostrategic landscape. A far more self-reliant Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, neutralizing two frontline states. Israel is a leading global tech innovator, has a world-class high-technology military sector, and maintains a nuclear arsenal. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are planning for a post-petroleum world and investing heavily in technology. They look to Israel as a key economic and technology partner, an under-appreciated motive behind their recent diplomatic moves. This reflects an undercurrent in the region of generational change, a mindset of shedding legacy conflicts and pursuing entrepreneurialism and a twenty-first-century knowledge economy. This is captured in the bold UAE effort to launch a satellite to orbit Mars and Saudi efforts to compete with Dubai as the regional financial hub and create NEOM, a carbon-emissions free city.
The still-unfolding UAE/Bahrain/Morocco/Sudan-Israel normalization, aka the Abraham Accords, indicates that a major if not central conflict in the GME is now the regional power struggle between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran (aka Sunni-Shia proxy war), with Sunni Arab states quietly, and increasingly more visibly, working with Israel to focus to manage a common adversary: Iran. This protracted conflict has spilled over into the internationalized civil wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Iran’s hiring of proxies in the latter conflict and of Hezbollah in Lebanon has produced near state collapse there. These developments have overshadowed Israeli-Palestinian issues.
The second big change flows from the consequences of the protracted Syrian Civil War, and the new roles of Turkey, behaving more as a neo-Ottoman authoritarian Islamic state than a NATO ally, and of Russia. This is seen in the heightened rivalry between Turkey, Iran, and Russia over the fate of the Assad regime. Israel is a major player as well if only in its attempt to stop Iran from entrenching its military presence in southern Syria that provides a land bridge to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s key ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
The United States remains a marginal military player with its tiny presence in eastern Syria if only to sustain a counterterrorism campaign against the remnants of the quasi-state ISIS. Recently, tension has risen dramatically between Turkey and Russia and its quasi-ally Iran when Ankara decided to intervene in northwestern Syria with an expeditionary force to save the anti-Assad Salafist-jihadis from being defeated in Idlib Province. This intervention has frustrated Moscow and Tehran’s desire to consolidate the sovereign power of their client, the Assad regime. Ankara’s “moves of greatness” reflect the new scramble for influence flowing, in part, from a perception of U.S. retreat. It would be reassuring if U.S. officials could explain why one expansionist Islamic state with dreams of recapturing past (Persian) glories is on the U.S. most-wanted list, while the other, neo-Ottoman Turkey, having troops in twelve countries and despite disregarding and threatening U.S. interests, is an ally. A number of Arab regimes in the region view Turkey as an increasing threat. However, a series of developments—the growing Sunni-Israeli entente; Turkey’s possible overstretch and disastrous economy; and Ankara’s anticipation that a Biden administration will end the free pass for its military assertiveness that it got from Trump may portend a less ambitious Turkey and a new modus vivendi.