In a symbol of the broader sidelining of his "pivot to Asia" to attend once again to the recurrent quagmire that is the Middle East, President Barack Obama decided to cut out his visit to the Taj Mahal and leave India early to fly to Saudi Arabia – to pay his respects to the family of recently deceased King Abdullah and meet with new King Salman. Since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed the protection of the United States in exchange for providing the world with cheap oil. And the wider Middle East has enjoyed excessive U.S. strategic and military interest for the same reason.
In my book, No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, I debunk the myth that oil is a strategic commodity, more important than other products for running a military or an economy. Even before the oil fracking boom, which again will likely soon make the United States the world’s largest oil producer, the United States produced enough oil to run its military in any large war. As for the American economy, the cheapest and surest way to get plentiful oil supplies is to pay the world market price rather than undertake the costly – both in lives and money – stationing of U.S. military forces permanently in the Middle East and using them to fight to "safeguard" petroleum supplies.
In fact, the United States does not even get most of its imported oil from the Middle East. Therefore, the real reason for the heavy U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf seems to be to have an American thumb on the "oil lifeline" of other powers, such as China and even Japanese and European allies.
Some lovers of U.S. military interventionism would claim that no free market for oil exists and that the OPEC cartel, led by none other than Saudi Arabia, makes the Middle East strategic to American security. But Economics 101 teaches that in the long term, most cartels are not very effective in raising the price of any commodity above that of what the market would bear. That outcome occurs simply because all cartel producers have an incentive to publicly adopt production restrictions in an attempt to elevate the price but privately cheat "under the table" by producing more to get higher revenues offered by the higher price. Of course, with everyone cheating, the price eventually falls back to the market level. In the case of oil, the cartel also has to deal with many non-cartel producers, all of whom will not even pretend to restrict production and instead will pump furiously if the price rises. So the oil cartel might have some effect on the prices in the short term but not in the long term.
Thus, Saudi Arabia has power only because economists don’t drive policy in most capitals, and many world leaders believe the oil illusion. Also, the Saudis play a double game of sponsoring Islamist terrorism and then pretending to fight it. And Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records on the planet, so why coddle it at all?
Even if Saudi Arabia and OPEC had as much control over oil prices as many believe – which is debunked by current and past Saudi struggles to “control” a down market – industrial economies like the United States’ are fairly immune to the effects of spikes in oil prices, contrary to conventional wisdom. A modern economy requires many important inputs – such as semiconductors and rare platinum-group metals required to "crack" large crude oil molecules into smaller gasoline and diesel fuel molecules – that the government doesn’t claim that it needs to "defend" with military force. So defending oil is questionable.
If oil is not all that "strategic" – meaning that the government must intervene because the market will not work properly – maybe Obama and all his predecessors back to FDR have been unnecessarily bogged down in the Middle East. But what about the other pillar of U.S. Middle East policy – defending our ally Israel? Even if oil were strategic, American support for Israel certainly doesn’t help the United States to gain the favor of Arab oil producing states, which are mortal enemies of Israel. Also, alliances are supposed to be a means to a strategic end. The strategic end for American politicians in supporting Israel is usually domestic rather than international. Besides, Israel is now much richer than its neighbors and has a capable military that has done a wonderful job defending it.
In addition to removing the attention- and resource-diverting bog from obstructing Obama’s pivot to the much more important Asian region, less U.S. interventions in the Middle East would also enhance security at home by reducing the amount of blow back terrorism directed at American soil. Most of this terrorism is a result of historic American intervention in Islamic nations, including attacking or invading at least seven Muslim countries since September 11, 2001. Since people of all political persuasions should agree that job one for the U.S. government and military should be to protect the American people and their home territory – which both institutions failed miserably to do on 9/11 – the neo-imperial policing of the world (while endangering Americans) should take a back seat to protecting home soil.
It won’t. Unfortunately, vested interests have an even bigger grip on the formulation of the neo-imperial foreign policy than they do on domestic policy, because the American public has less interest, expertise, and therefore involvement in the former rather than the latter. Americans will continue to be endangered by U.S. overemphasis on the Middle East. An Obama visit to the Taj Mahal would have been better for everyone.