Speaking for myself and not my employer.
Over the past years, starting with the war in Iraq and amplified by the failures of the Arab Uprising, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the underlying strategic logic of U.S. engagement in the Middle East. By this, I don't just mean the perennial debate about achieving stability versus democracy. I do think that can be a false choice, but the falseness of the choice doesn't mean we can always get both together. Instead, in many cases, U.S. intervention is unlikely to achieve either, thus I'm taking the opportunity to lay out my case after a recent piece in the new newsletter Evening CSIS “Strategic Partnership in the Middle East: Respecting Our Gulf Allies, Realism About Ourselves.” It's by respected senior scholar Dr. Tony Cordesman, and just as I'd hoped he lays out a strong case for a policy I disagree with. This is not something I've discussed with him, as he's one of our most senior and respected scholars, and if the opportunity ever arose I'd need to be conversant in a lot more underlying research. However, I am comfortable making this argument on my own personal blog.
Dr. Cordesman and I are in agreement that the war of choice in Iraq was a disaster and that we should acknowledge the real differences between countries the U.S. partners with in the region. However, we disagree on his characterization as several more recent policies as mistakes. This leaves me more supportive of policies of the Obama administration, but this isn't a matter of partisanship. In the 2008 primary race between Senators Clinton and Obama, I chose to support Obama because of his policies on Iraq and Iran. Of course, I may still have been wrong then, but if so partisanship is not the reason why.
Rather than debate the specifics of choices in Syria and regarding the Arab Uprising, I'm going to focus on the differences in underlying strategic logic that results in my standing behind several policies that Dr. Cordesman characterizes as mistakes. That logic is U.S. strategic dependence on the Middle East.
As for the U.S. side of strategic dependence, the U.S. could not tolerate a military vacuum in a region whose oil exports were critical to world trade, the manufactured imports that support the U.S. economy, and limit the growth of energy prices. While U.S. petroleum imports dropped to some 8% of total U.S. imports in 2013 and are projected to drop further through 2030, the U.S. Department of Energy reference cases still projects that the U.S. will import some 32% of its total liquid fuels by 2040.
More significantly, indirect U.S. energy imports will continue to rise. The CIA World Factbook indicates that total U.S. imports rose to some $2.3 trillion dollars in 2013, or some 14 % of a total U.S. GDP of $16.7 trillion. Some 86% of those imports came in the form of manufactured goods, and roughly 60% of those imports came countries dependent on petroleum imports and at least 30% from Asian nations critical dependent on Gulf oil and gas. No one can deny the advantages the U.S. has gained from increases in U.S. and Canadian oil and gas production, but energy independence is at best a myth that can only affect direct petroleum imports, and will not affect growing U.S. dependence on indirect energy imports in the form of manufactured goods.
The U.S. should be concerned about dominance of the Milddle East, not a "military vacuum"
If the Middle East was dominated by a single power, e.g. Russia, China, Iran, or even a unified Gulf Cooperation Council, then that power could substantially raise U.S. energy costs through sanctions. However, with the end of the Soviet Union and ongoing intra-regional rivalries, no great power is in the position to dominate the Middle East. By comparison, a "military vacuum" may result in price volatility, which does pose real problems to the global economy, but it does not pose a risk similar to the 1970s Oil Embargo. Avoiding a "military vacuum" is a remarkably ambitious objective because it requires the U.S. to act as a hegemon rather than prevent the rise of an opposing hegemon. The Carter doctrine recognizes this:
"Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." (emphasis mine)
Given the range of difficulties Dr. Cordesman illuminates elsewhere in his piece, I argue that chasing Middle East hegemony is a mistake and a distraction from Asia. This is not to say that successive U.S. administrations and Congresses do not place great value on particular partnerships in the region, notably with Israel, but advancing bilateral interests is also a lower bar than upholding hegemony throughout the region.
Imported manufactured goods are fungible
Dr. Cordesman is certainly correct that several major U.S. trading partners are dependent on Middle Eastern oil supplies, notably including China. However, manufactured goods have a wide range of inputs, in terms of the quantity and quality of labor, capital input, energy sources, etc. If Chinese goods get more expensive because of rising energy costs, there will be disruptions, but we can also buy goods from different countries that made different investments decades ago. There are also any number of substitutes available. People can pay for more maintenance services if cars get more expensive or substitute other goods. No doubt there are specific goods for which this is a larger problem, but our level of imports from oil-intensive economies in aggregate does not prove evidence of strategic dependency.
China has a common interest in avoiding Middle East volatility
Russia is admittedly an energy exporter that could benefit from volatility, but as Dr. Cordesman piece notes, the major East Asian powers would not. Specifically, China is a major energy importer and thus would likely be rather displeased by Iran mining the straights of Hormuz even if that also disadvantaged countries that are traditionally more aligned with the United States. The People's Republic of China is building its power projection capabilities, but they are not on par with the United States nor will they be in the next few decades. A rising China is a potential peer competitor to the United States because they are focused in on their region rather than engaging in Cold War-style competition across the globe. China is active in Africa and Latin America, buying resources and making connections, and if the United States does step back they will likely spend treasure, and perhaps blood, to enhance their influence there. However, China is a rising great power: they will be expanding their influence somewhere, and the range of complicating factors and schisms in the Middle East limit the marginal benefits of playing a larger role there.
Negative externalities from climate change reinforce the importance of moving away from oil
If we have a choice between spending a dollar decreasing the volatility of Middle Eastern oil prices or reducing dependency on oil, we gain a double benefit from the latter.
My conclusion: Selective engagement
I would argue that in judging U.S. policies in the Middle East, we should always consider the option not to act and should consider the husbanding of U.S. blood and treasure to be a mark of strategic success in its own right. Dr. Cordesman may well be right that more respectful partnerships with a range of authoritarian in the Middle East is the best way for the U.S. to actively prevent military vacuums in the region. However, I would argue that instead we'd be better off limiting interventions to those cases in which there is good reason to believe that we can achieve real improvements in human security in the region, be it through democracy or stability. This isn't to say that we should only act when it is a sure thing; a nuclear deal with Iran has long been a fifty-fifty shot at best. But in my opinion, either bargaining hard to stay in Iraq under P.M. Nouri al-Maliki or pouring weapons early into Syria were unlikely to achieve much good even if they would have pleased frequent partners in the region.
Discussing examples are debates for a different time that require support specific to the situation. I am laying out my strategic disagreement here because I disagree with a postulate held by many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. To often, such postulates go unstated, and I greatly appreciate that Dr. Cordesman lays out his case and evidence in detail.