“To stay, or not to stay”, that is the question. That could be a passage from Hamlet, paraphrased by U.S. strategists when reviewing their next moves on the Middle East chessboard. When the U.S. inherited the colonial crown of the British Empire, especially after WW II, it did not bargain for the liabilities that came with it. Great Britain had forcibly relinquished its influence over the region but not before planting some booby traps along the way.
On Valentine’s Day in 1945, the meeting between FDR and King Abdel Aziz was crucial to cement the petrol-for-security grand bargain that was hatched by both statesmen. That bargain had a useful life till the fall of the Berlin Wall, or thereabout. A host of major events had occurred over the past decades that rendered the bond between the U.S. and Arab oil nations, anachronistic.
On the political front, the oil shock of 1973, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, and the oil crisis of 1979, in the aftermath of the fall of the Shah, rendered the West (in its generalized definition) wary of the reliability of oil flows from the region, in assured quantities and at reasonable prices. The demise of the Soviet Union rendered the alliance between the ideologically anti-communist U.S. and the naturally anti-communist Islamic nations, obsolete. Their last common struggle was against the former USSR in Afghanistan. Then came 9/11 which shattered the trust between former allies and fueled the drive of the U.S. and the West to wean itself from the Middle East and its fossil fuels.
On the technological front, while the first commercial hydraulic fracturing of an oil well took place in 1949 about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma, it was only in the late 1980s that this technique took off dramatically Today more than 95 percent of U.S. natural gas and oil wells are developed using hydraulic fracturing. So, fracking has led to substantial increases in U.S. domestic oil and gas production, thereby significantly reducing the need for the United States to import oil.
On the regional security front, Israel, as a strategic U.S. ally remained under threats, from Iraq, Libya, and others, despite the Camp David Treaty of 1978, and the Peace Treaty with Jordan in 1994. But with the fall of the Saddam and Qaddafi regimes, the near destruction of the Syrian army starting in 2011, and finally, with the entry of several Arab nations (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan) with Israel into the Abraham Accords of 2020, serious risks have been eliminated, except for Iran. But here also, according to various security analysts, Israel’s cross-border airstrike capacity and the U.S. high-tech/high-caliber military support for it, are both capable of containing such a threat for years to come.
So, if communism is gone, and U.S. energy imports from the region are insignificant, and if the security of Israel has been significantly enhanced either by peace treaties or by defense mechanisms, what is left for the U.S. to do in the Middle East? Why is it still a region of interest? Why is the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and Al Udeid air base in Qatar, and some other scattered secret bases lingering around the GCC?
A closer look from a superpowers’ race perspective, may show a different picture.
Iran is crossing a line with the U.S. and EU by supplying Russia with killer drones in the Ukrainian war. Saudi and the rest of OPEC are crossing a line with the U.S. by bringing Russia into the oil cartel. Iran, Iraq, and Saudi are crossing a line with the U.S. by supplying China with growing volumes of oil and gas which empower its industrial base amid a trade war with the U.S. Iraq is under Iranian influence, despite trillions of war investment by the U.S., and there, Chinese, and Russian oil companies are gaining a footprint at the expense of U.S. and Western oil majors. Finally, Iran’s nuclear weapons in-the-making, and its fully developed missiles program, are not only a threat to the State of Israel, but to the entire region and to U.S. military assets stationed therein as well.
Hence, the great dilemma for the U.S. to stay invested in the Middle East or to cut its losses and adopt a politics of divide and conquer? Israel, and to a certain extent Turkey, are still within the Western zone of influence, and they both can play the role of ‘disruptors-in-charge’ against Iranian, Russian, and Chinese plans in the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria, and Iraq. However, the prize to be paid would be steep, translated in the form of unbridled influence over their neighbors: Israel over Lebanon, the Golan and Gaza and, Turkey over parts of Iraq, Syria, and maybe Cyprus’ water ways.
If the U.S. decides to exit the Middle East, then nature will fill-in the vacuum irrespective of the quality and longevity of the replacement(s). But, if it decides to stay, at the level of its former might, then great turmoil awaits us. As Tacitus once said: “Great empires are not maintained by timidity.”
Is the prize worth the risk?