Make no mistake, Middle East still matters to the US

Friday 03/07/2015

Beirut - Observers of US foreign policy have embraced a new piece of conven­tional wisdom. They argue that the United States no longer has vital interests in the Middle East, therefore needs not deeply involve itself in the region. This conclusion is seriously flawed.

A familiar contention is that the primary reason for American interest in the Middle East over the last century, namely securing access to oil, no longer applies. The United States imports most of its oil from elsewhere, is nearly self-sufficient and has boosted its own production thanks to the shale oil revolution.

Perhaps, but that’s only half the picture. The Middle East may not count for many Americans but the economy does. Instability in the region and its effect on oil prices have a bearing on the global economy. Moreover, China is reliant on the region’s oil, with roughly half of its oil imports from the Persian Gulf. China is also a major holder of US Treasury bills, so whatever happens to its economy affects the United States’.

Then there is the American relationship with Saudi Arabia, which was always based on a quid pro quo: The United States protected the kingdom in exchange for the Saudis maintaining stability in oil markets. This equation hasn’t changed.

The United States still needs Saudi support to ensure oil prices remain stable in periods of volatility. The Americans also have an overriding stake in ensuring that Saudi oil doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Washington went to war with Iraq in 1991 for that reason. Then, the Bush administration feared Saddam Hussein’s control over both Kuwaiti and Saudi oil wells.

Another reason justifying American disengagement is the view that the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have reached an impasse, therefore the United States has no reason to waste time finding a peaceful resolution. Though understandable, the conclusion is, again, very short-term.

For starters, the credibility of US diplomacy has been undermined by the inability to reach a settlement. The United States is no longer viewed as an effective mediator by Palestinians and Israelis, eroding American regional influence and losing Washington an indispensable aspect of its power. Yet the United States cannot afford to be diplomatically marginalised in a region as dangerous as the Middle East.

While Palestinians and Israelis may not be at war today, the deadlock in their relations suggests an explosion is coming. The potential for this to spiral out of control is high, based on years of frustration and a feeling that only armed struggle can break the stalemate. The United States cannot relish another Arab-Israeli war in the region.

Terrorism is a third reason why what occurs in the Middle East is central to American interests. US President Barack Obama has understood this in deploying his military to Iraq to fight the Islamic State. But it shouldn’t take another 9/11 for the American people to agree with him.

The problem is that terrorist attacks don’t occur often, so there is a tendency to forget their traumatic effects. Yet militant groups often regard daring attacks against Western targets as vital in recruiting followers.

However, successful containment of terrorists cannot be done by military means alone. That is why a much more multifaceted approach is needed, requiring time and commitment from the United States and other countries.

A fourth reason why the Middle East matters is more abstract. In his 2015 National Security Strategy, Obama defined one of his principal foreign policy objectives as the establishment of “a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership”.

This has long been part of the president’s worldview, and nowhere has it been undermined so systematically as in the Middle East.

In the conflicts throughout the region, above all in Syria and Iraq, humanitarian principles and human rights have been devastated, as have international institutions. The region is a graveyard for universal values. The divisive debate over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed what can go wrong when there is no agreement over global “rules of the game”.

The Middle East is at the heart of all these issues. Yet most disturbing is the sense that US foreign affairs are an either-or proposition.

The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” never needed to entail full-scale disengagement from the Middle East. Nor did the United States’ regional role have to involve direct military intervention — during the post-second world war period, until the turn of the century, it almost never did.

To say that the United States has no vital interests in the Middle East seems an excuse to hide the Obama administration’s lack of a policy towards the region. But oil, Persian Gulf security, the outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, terrorism and humanitarian values are as important today as they were two decades ago. What has changed is the United States’ view of itself.