An undiplomatic tweet from the US State Department has betrayed a worrying lack of understanding both of the oil market and American strategy in the Middle East.
The missive, which apparently reflects President Donald Trump’s views, stated that, “Opec nations are ripping off the rest of the world. We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices.”
This chimes with a recent report by Securing America’s Future Energy, a campaigning group advocating less American reliance on oil, which argues that the US military spends at least $81 billion (Dh297.4bn) annually on protecting global oil supplies, equivalent to $11.25 per barrel consumed in the US.
Yet the US is pushing up oil prices itself by imposing sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. And, through purchases of American armaments, the Middle East states do in fact make a large financial contribution.
But the biggest weakness in this view is that it misunderstands the reason for the US military presence in the Middle East. The US is no longer in the region to defend its own oil supplies; it is there to maintain its global power, and to deter China. Otherwise, who, other than a weak Iran, is the Middle East foe that requires $81 billion per year to deter?
Until the fall of the Shah in 1979, the US’s “Twin Pillars” policy relied on Iran and Saudi Arabia to keep the Soviet Union out of the Arabian Gulf. The Carter Doctrine, enunciated in 1980, stated that the US would use military force, if necessary, to prevent “an outside force” from gaining control of the region.
The US was increasingly drawn into the Gulf to protect oil shipments during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. After the defeat of Iraq’s 1990-1 invasion of Kuwait, the Bill Clinton administration turned to “dual containment”, requiring the long-term stationing of expansive armed forces to confront Iran and Iraq, even though they were deadly enemies of each other.
With Saddam Hussein now long gone, Washington sees Iran as its remaining major foe, along with extremist groups such as Isil. The continuing large American military presence partly reflects its lack of capable, reliable regional partners. The recent discussions over an “Arab Nato”, the Middle East Strategic Alliance, grouping the US along with the six GCC members, Egypt and Jordan, is one proposed solution.
As the so-called “realist” view of international relations has it, the US, as the world’s dominant power, seeks to avoid the emergence of a regional hegemon anywhere else because one might use its control as a platform to threaten it. The Monroe Doctrine keeps other powers out of the western hemisphere; in Europe, the US has relied on Nato against the Soviet/Russian threat; in Asia, it uses Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and perhaps Vietnam and India to balance against China; and Africa is too disunited and weak to be a concern.
The Middle East is a special case. It is crucial because of its pivotal geography – controlling Suez and the routes from the Black Sea and Caspian – and its vast oil and gas resources.
Hence the region has to be protected both from an outside power – which in the near future might include China as well as Russia – and from dominant local actors. In particular, Saddam Hussein threatened to become a regional monopolist after seizing Kuwait in 1990, directly controlling a fifth of then-world reserves and threatening the other Arabian Gulf states.
Now, the rise in the US’s own oil production has brought it close to self-sufficiency, particularly when including safe supplies from Canada and Mexico. Many policymakers have seized on this as evidence that the US does not have to worry about the Middle East anymore, other than supporting Israel and fighting terrorism. This is mistaken: the military deployment itself may be oversized, but the strategic logic remains.
Firstly, the US is exposed to world oil prices, even if it did not import a drop itself, as its domestic fuel prices are closely linked to the global market. And the worldwide economic damage that follows an oil supply shock, as in 1973, 1980 and 1990, has led to US recessions, too.
Secondly, and more importantly, the US position in the region is a deterrent to any competitor, most obviously China. The Middle Kingdom imports some 10 million barrels per day, 42 per cent of that from the Arabian Gulf, which could be shut off overnight in the event of conflict. Beijing’s keenness to develop alternative pipelines from Russia and Central Asia, its push for electric vehicles, and its development of regional bases such as Djibouti and Pakistan’s Gwadar shows its awareness of this strategic vulnerability.
Another competitor, Russia, has ramped up its regional power in Syria, Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and via its alignment with Iran and brokering the Opec/non-Opec production deal. Moscow is more influential in the Middle East than it has been since the 1970s, and it has a clear interest in hindering competition to its own massive oil and gas exports, as well as diminishing American leverage over it.
The State Department’s tweet reflects the administration’s view that “free-riders” are benefiting at the US’s expense, everywhere from the Middle East to Nato to world trade.
As former marine corps commandant General James Conway puts it, “Why should we protect the oil that is going from Iran to China?”
A solid American-led regional security architecture would diminish the burden. But the substantial costs the US incurs in the Middle East are more than repaid by its geopolitical gains.
Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis