Reimagining the Middle East: Reimagining the International Environment: Part 3.

Author:Freeman, Chas W., Jr.
Position:Commentary and Analysis

October 2017

See also:

Part 1 Reimagining Great Power

Part 2 Reimagining China and Asia

This is the third of three lectures. The first spoke to shifting patterns of great power relations and their global implications. The second addressed evolving balances of power in Asia in light of China's and India's return to wealth and power. "From now on," President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address, "it's going to be only America first, America first!" If so, no region stands to be more affected than West Asia and North Africa--what Americans call "the Middle East." America's interests there are now entirely derivative rather than direct. They are a function of the self-appointed roles of the United States as the warden of world order, the guarantor of other nations' security, the shepherd of the world economy, and the custodian of the global commons. If America is now to look out only for itself, it has little obvious reason to be much involved in the Middle East.

The United States is a secular democracy. It has no intrinsic interest in which theology rules hearts or dominates territory in the Middle East. It is not itself now dependent on energy imports from the Persian Gulf or the Maghreb. For most of the two-and-a-half centuries since their country was born, Americans kept a healthy distance from the region and were unharmed by events there. They extended their protection to specific nations in the Middle East as part of a global struggle against Soviet communism that is long past. What happens in the region no longer determines the global balance of power.

U.S. wars in the Middle East are--without exception--wars of choice. These wars have proven ruinously expensive and injurious to the civil liberties of Americans. They have poisoned American political culture with various manifestations of xenophobia. Islamophobia has transitioned naturally to anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and bigotry. In the region itself, American military interventions have produced more anarchy than order, more terror than tranquility, more oppression than democratization, and more blowback than pacification.

More than in any other region, America's misadventures in the Middle East illustrate the need for the United States to decide whether it is the vindicator only of its own interests or the champion and protector of all the world's prosperity and security. Can America go its own way or must it keep commitments it made under different circumstances in the past? Are Americans accountable for the damage their interventions have wrought, or free to leave to others the task of remedying the miseries they helped create?

In essence, these choices come down to whether the United States needs to deploy its power on a worldwide basis or just carries on doing so because it did in the past and still can. The state of affairs in the Middle East affects America's global power. The region is where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge. It is a way station or choke point on air and shipping routes between Asia and Europe. It is where the world's energy supplies are concentrated. It is the point of origin of the three Abrahamic religions and the driver of global contention between them.

The freedom to transit the Middle East is central to the ability of the United States to project its military power around the world. Cooperative relations with the nations of the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and/or Iran are necessary to assure their facilitation of overflight for U.S. warplanes and passage through the Suez Canal, by the U.S. Navy. The hostile state of U.S. relations with Iran makes Saudi Arabia and Egypt the logistical linchpins of America's worldwide military reach. If the United States remains committed to military operations all over the world, it must stay politically and militarily engaged with at least these two nations. Disengaging from them would imply a decision to greatly reduce America's global footprint and reach.

U.S. allies and partners everywhere defer to the United States in part because they count on its unique ability and demonstrated willingness to use force to assure untrammeled global access to Persian Gulf energy supplies. These constitute about 28 percent of world energy production. They are a decisive factor in fueling global prosperity. In practice, the only international defender of global access to these resources is the United States.

Fracking and horizontal drilling techniques have made the United States once again an energy exporter. Oil and gas shipments from the Persian Gulf now both complement and compete with oil and gas from America. Yet, preventing the disruption of access to Persian Gulf energy is a service that the United States continues to provide free of charge to the global economy. America does not ask the principal consumers of these exports--China, the EU, India, Japan, and Korea--to assume or even share the burden of assuring their own energy security. Arguably, this deprives these countries of reasons to build navies that might rival that of the United States and thus helps to preserve America's global military primacy. But it's hard to see what other U.S. interest it now serves.

What costs and benefits would accrue to the United States from phasing in arrangements to share responsibility with others for managing threats to global security and prosperity from the Persian Gulf? Clearly, as Asian navies expanded into what has long been an almost exclusively American operational area, the United States would lose its regional monopoly on naval power. But, relieved of the burden of protecting the supply lines of others, the U.S. Navy might be freed to focus on areas and issues with more direct effects on American interests. If "it's going to be only America first," this tradeoff calls out for systematic examination.

So, of course, do America's wars in the region. They include the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, as well as the conflicts in the Sahel escalating combat with a disorderly jumble of transnational Islamist movements has spawned. None of these military operations is authorized by a congressional declaration of war that...

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