As the Obama administration gears up for additional commitments to Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, it is good to remind ourselves that in spite of the overheated rhetoric of the past few years, the region is of very little, if any, strategic value to the United States. Although we have sacrificed our national honor, our fortune, and the lives of our military personnel to bring security and stability from Lebanon to Pakistan, the fact remains that our presence is as ill-conceived as it is unnecessary: ill-conceived because the interjection of American power feeds the anger of those who would harm us, and unnecessary because there is nothing there we need. While it may be the case that portions of the Middle East are of significant humanitarian interest, such is not synonymous with our strategic national interests except in the very broadest terms that humanitarian help implies.
Indeed, one can make the argument that the primary destabilizing influence in the region is the American military, with its continued arming of any number of factions across the entire arc from Israel to India. This is exemplified most recently by the plans to place Patriot missile systems in the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait in addition to those in Israel aimed, it seems, at Iran. This is not to suggest that there are no threats; it is to suggest instead that those which do exist are seriously overblown in comparison to the Cold War between 1945 and 1989. Ironically, it is the heavy presence of this past that now cripples our ability to discern regional concerns from those that have a broader impact.
Although Americans have been interacting with the Middle East since the founding of our Republic, it was only in the 1930s that the United States found itself reflecting upon its strategic importance. To the dismay of the British, the U.S. courted the king of Saudi Arabia for rights to explore for oil, which would be found in 1938. World War II put further exploration on hold, but not American interests. With the express consent of the British and the Iranians, the U.S. moved into southern Iran in 1942 in order to develop a Persian corridor to assist the Russians in the aftermath of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the USSR.
Fearful of impending defeat at the hands of the Germans, the Russians also pressed the U.S. to open up a second front somewhere in Western Europe. Ill prepared as we were in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the most the U.S. was willing to do was enter the war in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942 and assist the British roll back German advances. As the war wound down, our ties were further cemented when FDR on his way back from Potsdam in February 1945 met with the Saudi king on an American boat in the Gulf of Suez. The purpose of this meeting was simple: American protection for Saudi oil, an agreement that has lasted until today.
During the Cold War, the Middle East was of enormous strategic interest to the United States. We wanted to protect our oil supplies and prevent the USSR from making inroads into the region. To accommodate these goals, we gradually filled the power vacuum created by the retreat of the British in the aftermath of the war and developed the seemingly contradictory policies of supporting Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel as bulwarks against the spread of communism. All might have remained relatively stable and predictable but for the Iranian Revolution and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The advent of the Islamic Revolution and the invasion of Afghanistan at virtually the same time rattled Washington to the core: one pillar of our Middle East policy was lost to a virulently anti-American regime while the Russians were believed to be on the move to capture the oil fields. Threatened by this doomsday scenario, Washington panicked. When Iraq invaded Iran, we supported both, to the detriment of each. We also increased our covert aid to jihadists fighting against the USSR in Afghanistan. With the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan and the Soviet collapse shortly thereafter, it seemed the U.S. stood victorious: the Cold War was over, the Russian Empire was gone, and the U.S. was unassailable as the most powerful country in the world.
Yet victory was short-lived in view of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The introduction of American forces into Saudi Arabia in 1990-91 provided the justification for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s war against the United States that culminated in the attacks of 9/11. In response, the U.S. launched its multi-country attacks and began to gradually redirect its oil purchases away from the Gulf to other potentially more secure sources such that by 2009, only around 18 percent of oil imports came from the region [.pdf]. The bulk of our imported oil comes from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola, Brazil, Algeria, Colombia, Russia, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, and Libya, essentially abnegating any security rationale for an American presence in the Middle East. Absent threats from the USSR and freed from dependence upon Middle East oil, the U.S. has absolutely no strategic interests in the region.
Why then is the United States fixated with an area of the world that is of only marginal importance to our security? The answer, I suspect, has as much to do with the inertia of almost 70 years of political engagement as it does with muddleheaded attempts to control the distribution of the region’s supply of oil and, more importantly, the economic growth of potential economic competitors. Both of these goals are unreasonable and do little to contribute to American national security; indeed, our continuous meddling does just the opposite, as bin Laden and his supporters have made so evident.
Some will argue that an American retreat will lead to chaos and catastrophe – but honestly, how much worse could it be than the unmitigated disaster that is currently the case? At some point, we must realize we cannot continue to fight wars that have absolutely nothing to do with our actual national interests but instead reflect a rather perverse attachment to “tradition.” With the U.S. (and USSR) gone from the region, al-Qaeda, Iran, and others will have lost the objects of their resentments. Threats of a lesser sort to American security there will be, but with good oversight, vigilance, and selective, mutually agreed-upon political engagement, we can keep them to a minimum. The implication is that the regional powers will have to confront their differences without the presence of the U.S., and that includes the ever present Arab-Israeli conflict. No matter how intractable that issue remains, it is, after all, a regional concern to which we may become a party only when asked. To elevate the ongoing Middle East conflicts to the level of existential threat is simply wrong, and a profound misreading of the regional conflicts themselves. It is time to bring everyone home.