After decades of spending trillions of dollars on fruitless wars, Americans are getting frustrated with the Middle East. Even when dramatic attacks happen, Americans are throwing up their hands. To take one example, after Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities last fall, a Business Insider poll found that only 13 percent of Americans surveyed supported any kind of U.S. military response. Almost twice as many responded that “the US should remove itself entirely from the affairs of the region and let Saudi Arabia handle the issue itself.”
The withdrawal advocates are right. The foggy theories underpinning U.S. strategy in the region are wrong. Not only would leaving help keep the United States out of more costly wars in the region, but rolling up U.S. Central Command would save on the order of $65 – 70 billion per year in peacetime. That’s real money.
In a new paper, I argue that three main concerns underpin U.S. policy in the Middle East: oil, Israel, and terrorism. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, echoing those of the Obama and Bush administrations, says that the United States “seeks a Middle East that is not a safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and that contributes to a stable global energy market.”
To evaluate U.S. strategy, then, one has to consider how likely something bad happening with respect to oil, Israel, or terrorism would be if the United States weren’t in the region. Put differently, would the costs of leaving exceed the costs of staying?
To start with the oldest and most central justification for U.S. policy in the region, policymakers believe that U.S. troops prevent regional wars or other types of instability that threaten the ability of oil producers to get their product onto world energy markets. So, the U.S. presence in the region is thought to prevent price volatility, which could potentially hamper U.S. economic growth and warfighting capability, and produce second- and third-order effects that could send the global economy into a tailspin. They also believe that U.S. troops help prevent one country from controlling so much oil production capacity that it could use its control of oil markets to extort the United States and other consumers.
Of course, while scholars tend to ascribe U.S. interest in the region to oil, American political elites rarely say so out loud. Some of them may not even believe it. But the assumptions behind longstanding policies often escape scrutiny. The larger problem with these witchy beliefs — what Robert Vitalis calls Oilcraft — is that energy markets do not work the way U.S. foreign policymakers seem to believe that they do. As a leading oil economist lamented in 2004, “U.S. oil policies are based on fantasies not facts.”
Beginning in the 1970s, policymakers began to fear an “oil weapon” that could be used by oil-producing states to hobble the American economy in pursuit of political objectives. And if this weapon could be used on purpose, wars could also set it off inadvertently. Leading scholars at the time thought that most of the fluctuation in oil prices was caused by political volatility, not supply and demand. (Later research would show that long-term shifts in supply and demand were the real culprit.)
Oil is a fungible commodity sold on world markets. A metaphor used in the literature on oil markets is that of a bathtub into which producers pour oil and out of which consumers suck by opening a drain. What matters is how much is pouring in, how many drains are in the bathtub, and how open they are.
Countries in the Middle East make up roughly 30 percent of the world supply of oil and other liquid fuels, and that’s a big deal. If they pour more or less oil into the bathtub, that affects world prices. For this reason, two energy scholars suggested in 2013 that “what Americans import from the Persian Gulf is not so much the actual black liquid as its price.”
It was easy for politicians in the 1970s to blame the Arab oil embargo for the ensuing pandemonium in the U.S. economy, but it was also incorrect. As Henry Kissinger would later admit in Years of Upheaval — using the passive voice three times —
The structure of the oil market was so little understood that the embargo became the principal focus of concern. Lifting it turned almost into an obsession for the next five months. In fact, the Arab embargo was a symbolic gesture of limited practical importance.
Although the embargo did not cause the gas lines of the 1970s, at times U.S. policy in the region has itself contributed to oil price shocks. The 2011 regime change in Libya, tensions with Iran in 2012, and other recent U.S. policy initiatives have temporarily increased the price and volatility of oil.
In the modern era, it’s not even clear that upward oil price shocks are necessarily an economic calamity. Such shocks today would be substantially less economically damaging than those of the 1970s due to the declining economic burden of energy costs in countries like the United States. If prices rose suddenly, existing public and private reserves could help mitigate its effects.
Policymakers also worry that if one state could dominate the entire region, it would possess so much influence over world supply that it could act like a market-maker in oil. That might warrant a military effort, but so would an alien invasion.
No Middle Eastern country has a shot at regional hegemony. The state Americans are mostly supposed to worry about is Iran, but the country is in shambles today and would have no play at regional hegemony even if one assumes away “maximum pressure.” As one study of the military balance in the Gulf puts it, “Iran’s land forces are shaped largely for defense in depth and seem to have limited long-range maneuver capability and uncertain survivability in the face of Arab Gulf and allied airpower.” This is not an offensive military power poised for conquest. While reasonable people disagree about the implications of an Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz, even pessimists concede that Iran would have to suffer “catastrophic” attacks to drive it to do something as dramatic as making an effort to close the Strait.
Alternatively, one might worry that if the United States left, China or Russia could swoop in and pick up where the Americans left off. A cynical Machiavellian would encourage them to do so. Better Beijing or Moscow squandering money, attention, and military power attempting to run the Middle East than the United States.
U.S. troops in the Middle East do not stabilize the price of oil. No state is poised to consolidate control over the region’s oil. Nothing about oil justifies an American military presence in the Middle East.
One also hears concerns regarding the safety and power position of American partners in the region, especially Israel. For example, President Donald Trump recently claimed, “we don’t have to be in the Middle East, other than we want to protect Israel.”
Here again, how Israel’s security turns on a robust American military posture in the region is unclear. Since the Israel Defense Forces shellacked the Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians in the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has aggressively pursued its interests throughout the region with relative impunity, at least from conventional responses. Terrorism is an important problem for Israel, but the danger is not existential and would decrease with progress toward a settlement with the Palestinians. Regardless, a forward U.S. military presence in the region does nothing to help the Jewish state with its terrorism problem.
Israel enjoys an enormous qualitative military edge over any combination of potential regional rivals in conventional military terms. It also has at least 90 nuclear weapons deployed on an array of platforms, including submarines, that give it a secure second-strike capability against any state in the region that might threaten its survival. Moreover, the maelstrom of sectarian conflict that the past two decades of U.S. policy in the region helped unleash harms, rather than benefits, Israel.
Finally, there is terrorism. But since the basic contours of American policy in the region predate 9/11 by decades, it is strange to think that a concern that emerged after a policy began justifies the policy. Put bluntly, there is no evidence that terrorism is a threat that warrants an American effort to manage the Middle East militarily. The chance of an American being killed by terrorism outside a war zone from 1970 to 2012 was roughly one in 4,000,000. This is an extraordinarily low risk. As early as 2002, smart risk analysts were asking questions about counter-terrorism policy such as, “How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?”
Nearly 20 years later, we ought to be prepared to say, “Nowhere near this much.” The amount Americans pay now to fight Islamist terrorism — conservatively, somewhere between $50 and $100 billion per year, depending on how one counts — is absurdly divorced from the risk it poses. If someone ran a hedge fund assessing risk the way the U.S. government has responded to terrorism, it would not be long for the world. Moreover, it is difficult to identify how U.S. policy across the region — with the possible exception of some drone strikes and special operations raids — have reduced the extremely low probability of another major terrorist attack against the United States. If anything, U.S. policies may have made one more likely.
Good Money After Bad
Almost all of what the United States seeks from the Middle East — supplies of oil, limits on the terrorist threat, an Israel capable of defending itself — regional countries need more than the United States does. Without selling their oil, countries in the region would suffer terribly. Allowing one country to grow big enough to dominate the region would invite war and even state death. And although most terrorist organizations affect countries in the region far more than the United States, Washington can credibly threaten severe punishment against any state aiding anti-U.S. terrorists.
If the past 20 years have proven anything, it is that the United States does not have the answers to the problems of the Middle East. The good news is that it does not need them.
Costly foreign policies based on unsound logic should be updated or discarded. At a time when challenges at home and abroad are demanding more time and money, the $70 billion per year spent on patrolling the Middle East could be better spent elsewhere. After decades of floundering, policymakers ought to put CENTCOM out of its misery and spend that money on higher priorities with better likelihoods of success.
Justin Logan (@justintlogan) is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.
Image: Maj. Rodney Ellison