Even before the disruptive oil embargoes of the ’70’s, post-World War II realities dictated that the United States could not afford to let the strategically-located and resource-rich lands of the Middle East to fall under the influence of our Cold War adversaries. We made friends in the region where we could (Saudi Arabia and the Emirates) and replaced hostile regimes when we could not (Iran in the 1950’s). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, pursuing our national interest still demands constant diplomatic engagement, and even direct military involvement, as in Kuwait in 1991 and Iraq in 2003-11.
Our “national interest” of late has been focused on stability in the global oil markets. As the #1 oil importer, with dwindling domestic reserves and dwindling national will to do anything about it, reality demanded we keep Middle Eastern oil flowing and in friendly hands.
Gerald F. Seib wonders if the shale boom — responsible for a 43% increase in U.S. oil production since 2008 — might cause us to reevaluate that narrow focus:
Syria’s civil war increasingly threatens to metastasize into a regional conflict, as Hezbollah fighters join the battle on the side of Syria’s government, prompting the Syrian opposition to return fire directly into Hezbollah’s home base in Lebanon. Calls for the U.S. to get involved persist.
Meanwhile, another interesting news development looms. Government projections show that in September, for the first time in almost two decades, the U.S. will produce more oil than it imports. Nor will that be a fluke; the trend is expected to continue, and domestic oil production is expected to outstrip imports by an increasingly wide margin throughout 2014.
These two developments may seem unrelated, but they are not. The worsening situation in Syria raises the question of whether the U.S. will feel compelled to do something militarily to help end the rule of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, though, declining U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil raises the question of whether Americans will find it ever harder to see the point of getting involved in that messy region.
Seib concludes that “bugging out shouldn’t be considered an option”: failed Middle Eastern states will only incubate terrorism and possibly lead to nuclear proliferation in an already unstable region. Syria is not a major oil exporter, but its geography and its relationship with Iran and Iraq make it a key to Middle Eastern stability.
Meanwhile, an offer of potential “help” in stabilizing the region:
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia volunteered his country’s troops as replacements for the Austrian members of a United Nations peacekeeping force who are vacating the disputed Golan Heights area along the Israel-Syria border, where violence from the Syrian civil war has intensified.
“Given the complicated situation in Golan Heights we could replace the Austrian contingent leaving this region, on the disengagement line between Israeli troops and the Syrian armed forces,” Mr. Putin was quoted as telling newly appointed Russian officers in remarks in Moscow carried by the Interfax news agency. “But this will happen, of course, only if the regional powers show interest, and if the U.N. secretary general asks us to do so.”
With the rise of militant Islamism, it would be naive to think that American interest in the region is limited to securing access to oil supplies, and that a reduction in our demand for imported oil suddenly makes us indifferent to Middle Eastern affairs. On the contrary, as the oil markets realign, and especially if prices begin to reflect a global oversupply, oil-state economies and internal stability can be expected to become even more precarious.