Shifting U.S. interests in the Middle East

Regardless of the administration, the United States has long reiterated a consistent set of interests in the Middle East that have guided U.S. policy in the region. The Middle East is in turmoil, and now U.S. interests are in flux as well. As a result, and despite what you might hear on the campaign trail, future administrations might follow the President Obama’s path and be wary of greater intervention.

The world that was

The most commonly cited U.S. interest is oil, and in the past, spikes in oil prices have hurt the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Middle East produces 30 percent of the global market and some countries, above all Saudi Arabia, still possess significant spare production capacity. Yet despite this central role, the stability of foreign oil producers is less important to the United States than in the past (though still a real interest). The United States itself has reemerged as a major oil player, going from 8 million barrels per day in 2004 to a world-leading 14 million barrels per day in 2014. In addition, the world itself has an oil glut, with prices having plunged from a West Texas Intermediate (WTI) peak of $133.88 per barrel in June 2008 to $31.68 per barrel in January 2016. A higher price helps U.S. producers, a significant part of the U.S. economy, while the glut makes the Middle East’s spare capacity less important. Predicting the oil market is a fool’s game (if I could, I’d be happy now on my own island), but it seems likely that for the near- and medium-term at least, the world will not return to a tight oil market. 

[T]he stability of foreign oil producers is less important to the United States than in the past.

Israel is another central U.S. interest, often linked to a desire to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This interest is not likely to change, but Israel today faces little conventional military threat or any need for U.S. military intervention. Rather, support for Israel involves a mix of arms sales, intelligence and security cooperation, and diplomatic support. The peace process, moreover, is dead for now. Palestinians and Israelis seem more skeptical than ever—a skepticism shared by U.S. officials. Thus, for the foreseeable future, high-level diplomacy to bring peace seems unlikely.

The United States and its regional allies also shared an array of common interests and, for lack of a better description, a shared sense of where the danger lay. Anti-Communism cemented the U.S.-Saudi alliance for decades. When the Soviet Union fell, a shared interest in containing Iraq and Iran—and then preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon—also united America with its regional allies. This source of unity is now a source of animus: allies on the whole reject the Iran nuclear deal and any potential rapprochement with Tehran. In Syria, Yemen, and the region in general, this difference puts the United States on a different page than its allies, and both suffer as a result.

Democratization was always a lesser concern, but it too had its moments. George W. Bush had his “Freedom Agenda,” and when the Arab Spring began in 2011 the United States briefly tried to promote democracy in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries. Spring turned to winter, and civil wars, coups, or other disasters engulfed the nascent democracies. Democratization is high on no one’s list now.

The glue that keeps us together

So we’re down to counterterrorism. The United States and its regional allies both oppose al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Here too, however, there are differences:allies are more likely to support groups linked to al-Qaida, such as militias that worked with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch. But in general, intelligence cooperation and other efforts are a source of unity. The United States also relies on allies for basing to strike Islamic State forces.

Democratization is high on no one’s list now.

This counterterrorism emphasis meshes with U.S. domestic politics. Polls indicate an American public still suspicious of U.S. leadership in the Middle East (and the world at large), but also increasingly in favor of strong action against the Islamic State. So any administration has a political incentive—and a political reality—to be chary of intervention or heavy involvement in the Middle East, aside from counterterrorism.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, such a counterterrorism focus is a mistake—even if our primary goal is fighting terrorism. The source of terrorism in the Middle East is linked to civil wars, poor governance, the unresolved Palestinian issue, and numerous other problems. A narrow focus on counterterrorism also risks jeopardizing other interests, such as the ones above, that may resume their traditional importance in the long-term.