When the consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq 10 years ago are fully assessed, the importance of the subsequent rise of political Islam there — and throughout the wider Middle East — may well pale in comparison with that of a geostrategic shift that no one foresaw at the time. However, that shift has now come into view. With the US approaching energy self-sufficiency, a US strategic disengagement from the region may become a reality.
The Middle East has experienced the withdrawal of a great power, or powers, many times before: The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I; the fraying of the French and British imperial mandates after World War II; and, most recently, the nearly complete disappearance of Russian influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Each time, monumental changes in the region’s politics, particularly its alliances, quickly followed. If the US attempts to wash its hands of the Middle East in the coming years, will a similar rupture be inevitable?
Although many believe that the US-Israel alliance is the foundation of the US’ Middle East policy, it was dependence on imported oil that motivated the US to establish a dominant military presence in the region after 1945. Indeed, until the Six Day War of June 1967, the US was not a major supplier of military hardware to Israel. The US’ military presence was intended, above all, to preserve the Arab “status quo,” and hence the flow of energy from the Persian Gulf, for the benefit of the US, its allies and the entire global economy.
Of course, no one should think that the US’ shale-gas revolution (which has brought it to the brink of energy self-sufficiency) means that its Bahrain-based Navy’s Fifth Fleet will lift anchor any time soon. However, the rationale for the US’ commitment of military force to the region is changing fast; when that happens — as it has in Europe, for example, since the Cold War’s end — the distribution of military assets tends to change as well.
That change is almost certain to be reflected in the US’ relationships with its Arab allies and partners. As the US statesman and Harvard University professor Joseph Nye has said: “For decades the United States and Saudi Arabia have had a balance of asymmetries in which we depended on them as the swing producer of oil and they depended on us for ultimate military security.” Given the US’ burgeoning domestic energy supplies, Nye argues, those “bargains will be struck on somewhat better terms,” at least from the US perspective.
However, whatever new terms are struck, the degree of US disengagement from the Middle East will depend on how two key questions are answered.
First, would even a partial withdrawal of military force create a security vacuum that could be filled by a rival — say, China or Iran?
Second, would any diminution of the US’ commitment to the region incite the kind of instability that breeds failed states and terrorist havens?
US President Barack Obama’s current security strategy in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere suggests that the US will seek to mitigate the latter risk by continuing its covert interventions — particularly its use of unmanned aerial vehicles. However, preventing rivals from gaining overweening influence in the region will require a very different type of response — one that will require the backing of old allies, such as Japan, and new friends such as India.