One of the greatest temptations for recent American presidents has been the insidious thought that the balance of power in the Middle East is of diminishing strategic importance to the United States. This would appear to be the logic behind Donald Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. ground forces from Syria. Like Barack Obama before him, the president looks through the smaller, counterterrorism lens—fighting the Islamic State was his “only reason for being there”—rather than the regional (or global) balance-of-power lens.
The occupants of the Oval Office are not alone. With its recent votes to blame Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to withdraw military support from Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign in Yemen, it looks as though the U.S. Senate is open to the idea as well. Very likely the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will agree. On the near horizon looms the utter reversal of American Middle East strategy since 1945.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham—quick to condemn Trump’s Syria retreat and not so long ago Sen. John McCain’s sidekick in advocating for continued large and long-term American commitment in Iraq—has been among the most vocal and bitter critics of the Saudi leadership; indeed, he has called for the Riyadh regime to dump the crown prince—the de facto king—whom he describes as “crazy” and a “wrecking ball.” Graham has promised to vote against any future arms sales to the kingdom, arguing that the Saudi military “can’t fight its way out of a paper bag…. If it weren’t for the United States they’d be speaking Farsi in about a week.”
Behind Graham’s rhetorical blasts there lies what is coming to be conventional wisdom in Washington. “They give us 9 percent of our oil imports,” says Graham, echoing the belief that the oil and gas fracking revolution gives the United States not only energy independence but strategic independence in the Middle East. “We need them a lot less than they need us.” Graham also echoes the rationale of the late Vietnam War years, as the illegitimacy of the South Vietnamese military governments became apparent: “I don’t buy this idea that you’ve got to hook up to a murderous regime, a thug like [the crown prince], to protect America from Iran. Quite the opposite. I think by hooking up with him we hurt our ability to govern the region.”
And also as in Southeast Asia, successive American administrations are becoming increasingly weary with the failures of generations of mainstream Arab post-colonial regimes. It took President Obama two full terms to work toward his 2008 promise to withdraw from Iraq; even though he retained a residual force for the anti-Islamic State campaign, he more than offset that with withdrawals elsewhere and, even more importantly, legitimated Iran’s bid for regional hegemony in the 2015 nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Combined with his hostility to Israel, the road to reversal of traditional Middle East strategy was all but complete. And while Donald Trump has been Obama’s rhetorical opposite, his actions are consistent with Obama’s let-it-burn approach; the White House has declared victory against ISIS but has no interest in reclaiming lost ground in Iraq, let alone preventing the Iranian squeeze in Syria. The commitment to Afghanistan is no stronger than Trump’s last Tweet.
Whether simply walking away from the Middle East represents a new strategy or simply the collapse of the old one remains to be seen. Just because we only get a small amount of our energy supplies from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and that world markets are glutted with “black gold,” as Jedd Clampett would say, it does not mean that Gulf energy has lost all its strategic importance. This is particularly true for U.S. allies in East Asia. For example, 75 percent of Japan’s energy imports come from the Gulf Arab states and, since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Tokyo’s dependence on imported energy has risen: shutting down its nuclear plants means domestic energy sources produce just 10 percent of Japan’s annual need.
Moreover, we would be fools to take comfort in the weaknesses of the Saudi and other Arab regimes. The Middle East is not a naturally stable region. These have been the drivers of salafi terrorism for decades and the petri dish for the birth and brief life of a real Islamic State. If, in response to American displeasure, the Saudis were to quickly dump MbS, as the crown prince is popularly known, his successor could never be considered legitimate.
Nor would it be good if Saudis “spoke Farsi,” that is, succumbed—like Iraq and Syria—to Iranian influence. Not that the House of Saud will do so quietly. If abandoned by the United States, Riyadh will look elsewhere for great-power protection; Russia and especially China, whose need for imported energy has climbed steadily (notwithstanding a slowing economy and U.S. trade sanctions and despite efforts at diversification) and depends on the Gulf as its principal source, will happily take our place.
Finally, it is hard to imagine that the United States can remain the guarantor of international security or that the global balance of power will remain favorable if the Middle East becomes even more chaotic and violent than it already is. The “return of great-power competition” does not mean the end of lesser-power struggles; that the East Asian and European balances are more principally important does not mean that the Middle East balance has lost all importance.
We may hate living with Saudi Arabia and the Middle East but we can’t live without them. Indeed, the rapid withdrawal of the United States from the region since 2009, not the recession of 2008, is Exhibit A in the case for American decline. Trump’s Syria bug-out only exacerbates the problem—and certainly the Saudis will feel abandoned and perhaps more desperate, hardly likely to be a happy turn of events.