What would happen if and when America becomes energy independent in the next decade or so? Would Washington escalate its pivot to Asia and place less emphasis on relations in the Middle East? How would such an outcome affect the region? Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?
These questions were put to me after my last article. I attempt to answer them here.
The first answer is that American energy independence would not significantly change American interests in the Middle East. America did not guarantee the security of its allies in the Middle East for the last four to six decades to secure oil for America. Rather, America did this to secure oil for the world. American security guarantees are designed to allow energy resources to flow from the Middle East and—importantly—arrive safely in far off destinations (including the ports of its economic competitors).
Were America not to use its global maritime dominance to guarantee the safety of oil leaving the Persian Gulf and arriving in Tokyo, for instance, then Japan would develop a blue water navy for this purpose. And that would make Japan’s neighbours nervous, who would further develop their own defences, and so on.
All this means that if the ‘shale oil revolution’ means America no longer has to import even a single barrel of oil from anywhere, it and the world will still look to America to guarantee the safe passage of oil from the Middle East to foreign ports.
The pivot to Asia
The pivot to Asia was announced at a time when the Middle East was relatively stable. American forces had tamed Iraq and Iran was relatively weak. Since that time, the Arab Spring erupted and produced a revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Libya, a few wobbles in the Arab monarchies and, most devastatingly, a civil war in Syria. Iraq has also gone to pieces.
These developments have not prevented a disengagement, of sorts by America from the Middle East. But I think this is more a function of what appears to be a two-pronged Obama Doctrine than a pivot to Asia. I have previously written about the Obama Doctrine.
The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby cause a change in their behaviour to become more compliant.
The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)
Thus, and entirely separate to the bloody events of the Arab Spring, the US has purposefully taken its foot from Iran’s neck. However, there is little evidence that America’s extended hand has resulted in an unclenched Iranian fist. Iran continues the same regional policies that caused it to become a pariah in the first place, with the exception that it’s now a legitimate nuclear threshold state instead of an illegal nuclear threshold state.
The problem for the Obama Doctrine, is that while it might work well on paper, the results on the ground are that the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies.
How does the American pull-back affect the region?
It would appear that the main outcome of the Obama Doctrine and the apparent American pull-back from the Middle East is a new awareness among all players that locals (or other interested parties) will have to get their hands dirty—America is no longer coming in to save the day. That’s why the Saudis have so heavily bankrolled what amounts to a military dictatorship in Egypt since the counter-revolution overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Sisi Government. It’s why the Saudis organised a coalition to bomb the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen. And it’s why the Saudis have so heavily backed the Sunni Islamist groups in Syria that are fighting both Islamic State and the Iranian-aligned Syrian Government. After decades of not having to take any responsibility for the region, the Arab world’s leadership is now beginning to do so. But the problem is, it is still unprepared to do so and will take some time to learn the ropes.
In the meantime, Iran is very well organised, and will also benefit from the US distancing itself. This is especially the case since, as above, Iran’s maleficent regional policies (of arming, funding and supporting proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen) didn’t change during the nuclear negotiations and haven’t changed since the deal was signed. And even more so since the West will be so keen to have the nuclear deal work that it will not seriously challenge Iran on these regional policies (to be clear, I totally reject the arguments that now that America has signed the nuclear deal, it can and will go hard against Iran’s other nasty efforts).
All this means that Iran will be emboldened by the fact that the US is distancing itself from the region and its enemies in Riyadh are too unorganised to effectively balance Teheran. Expect Iran to push the envelope in the coming months to see if my theory is correct!
Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?
There will likely never be a formal Saudi–Israeli rapprochement, even in the face of a rising Iran (unless, of course, a peaceful, viable Palestinian state is created and the Saudis establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. This is a possibility but, in the short- to medium-term, at least, unlikely). However, unofficial contacts have been ongoing for many years and will only be strengthened as America pulls back. Others are more optimistic than me.