Thousands of U.S. soldiers have been killed in action , thousands more have been wounded, more than $5.6 trillion dollars in expenses have been generated, and America has an overburdened military posture stretched thin to the point of being dubbed “ the greatest gift ” that China could wish for. These are just a few of the self-evident costs borne by America’s exceedingly active policies pursued in the greater Middle East since the end of the Cold War. Clearly, given the level of attention the region has received over the past quarter century, the day-to-day geopolitics of the Gulf must profoundly impact U.S. interests and security, right? Or, to the contrary, and as Justin Logan argues, does the Middle East just not matter that much to Washington?
Since consolidating hegemony over the Western Hemisphere around the turn of the 1900s, the United States has had a vital interest in preventing the rise of a peer competitor elsewhere that threatens American primacy within its sphere of influence. Washington retains such an interest and should go to great lengths to maintain this status quo. However, in the Gulf, there is no potential peer competitor to the United States. Nothing even remotely close to it. Still, a common argument in favor of preventing the rise of a regional hegemon in the Gulf revolves around its significant energy reserves. A Gulf hegemon in control of the vast hydrocarbon resources of the Gulf, as the argument goes, would retain the ability to exert outsized influence on global-energy markets and potentially harm global prosperity by curtailing oil exports. This makes it necessary to assume the expensive burden of being the Gulf’s outside security guarantor, they posit.
This claim deserves scrutiny , particularly given the fact that it has actually fostered less dissention than U.S. security commitments to Europe and Asia have. First and foremost, it should be made clear that this interest concerns prosperity and not security, whereas in the Cold War both were at stake in this realm. Today, perversely, it is China, America’s only potential peer competitor that would shoulder a disproportionate burden from a hypothetical Persian Gulf supply rut. Concerning the prosperity argument, even if a single entity exerts hegemonic control over the Gulf’s oil, why would the Gulf completely disregard market incentives by curtailing supply for extended periods, even as prices shift in its favor, and not maximize profits? Moreover, the claim that regional instability thanks to interstate war could lead to massive supply cuts is questionable. How, then, was there an oil glut during the height of the brutal Iran-Iraq War? Even in the highly unlikely scenario of a massive Persian Gulf supply shock wrought on by an extreme event, such as the complete closure of the Strait of Hormuz for months on end, the economic impacts would be substantially cushioned by domestic and international oil reserves.
Furthermore, the United States’ astonishingly rapid rise to the top of global-energy producer charts further softens the potentially threatening nature of Gulf supply cuts. After the benchmark price of a barrel of crude plummeted to as low as $30 per day in 2016, OPEC and Russia struck an agreemen t to curtail supply in order to bolster prices, leading to a roughly $25 rise in price per barrel. In response, and largely thanks to the unique ability of U.S. producers to respond to price swings , U.S. production increases are not only counteracting the supply cut, but are projected to nearly make up for it by the end of this year. OPEC includes all of the countries in the Gulf with significant hydrocarbon reserves, and OPEC’s diminishing power is illuminated by the fact that perhaps the most significant outcome of its production cut was increasing the market share of U.S. producers. Given America’s already modest and continually dwindling reliance on Persian Gulf oil exports and Washington’s relative insulation from the adverse impacts of supply disruption price spikes, the onus of proof is on Gulf hegemon pessimists to delineate how this exceedingly unlikely worst case outcome is a vital U.S. interest to thwart.
While such a theoretical debate would be interesting, its pertinence is diminished because of the balance of power within the Gulf, even without the inclusion of Washington’s robust conventional capabilities. This is where those with the proclivity to inflate threats falsely proclaim that Iran is a menacing regional beast that is primed to conquer the Arabian Peninsula or, at the very least, interfere with freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz despite having shown little inclination to do so. Such a proclamation completely disregards the fact that the nations comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) drastically outspend Iran militarily. The calculus further shifts against Iran when one also factors in other regional states that are aligned against Tehran, such as Israel and Egypt. Israel, increasingly aligned with the Gulf States thanks to the purported Iran threat, is the only country in the region to possess a nuclear deterrent.