Bye-Bye, Middle East?


Zaki LaidiPARIS – For some time now, a certain strategic vision has been gaining traction: the United States is becoming energy-independent, paving the way for its political retreat from the Middle East and justifying its strategic “pivot” toward Asia. This view seems intuitively correct, but is it?

Energy-hungry America has long depended on the global market to meet domestic demand. In 2005, the US imported 60% of the energy that it consumed. Since then, however, the share of imports has decreased, and it should continue to do so. The US is expected to become energy self-sufficient in 2020, and to become an oil exporter by 2030.

This scenario would grant the US three enormous advantages. It would enhance US economic competitiveness, especially relative to Europe, given the lower costs involved in the extraction of shale gas. It would also reduce America’s exposure to growing unrest in the Arab world. Finally, it would increase the relative vulnerability of America’s main strategic rival, China, which is becoming increasingly dependent on Middle East energy supplies.

These facts obviously need to be taken seriously, but their implications for US foreign policy in the Middle East should not be too hastily drawn. Above all, though energy dependence is a key element of US policy in the region, it is far from being the only factor. Israel’s security and the desire to contain Iran are equally important.

Moreover, the Middle East’s role in the global geopolitics of energy will grow in the coming decades, making it difficult to see how a superpower like the US could simply walk away from the region. Within the next 15 years, OPEC countries will account for 50% of global oil production, compared to only 42% today. Furthermore, the country on which this increase will most likely hinge is Iraq.

Could the US ignore a country that in roughly ten years will become the world’s second-largest oil exporter, generating more than $200 billion annually in revenue, while increasingly being dominated by an authoritarian Shia regime that is close to Iran? Would it withdraw in the face of the consequent strategic threat to its three allies – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel – in the region?

Such a possibility seems even more far-fetched as long as the Iranian nuclear crisis remains unresolved and the Syrian crisis continues to widen the region’s Shia-Sunni divide (reflected in increased tension between Turkey and Iran). Even as US President Barack Obama was visiting Asia in November – a trip meant to underscore America’s “pivot” – he was forced to devote considerable time and attention to mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Indeed, if oil were truly America’s only or paramount interest in the Middle East, its special relationship with Israel would be mystifying, given the harm that it implies for US interests among Arab oil exporters. Even when its energy dependence on the Middle East was at its peak, the US rarely altered its policy of support for Israel.

It is also important to bear in mind that in 1973, the US suffered less from the OPEC oil embargo than Europe did, even though America, which had resupplied Israel in its war with Egypt and Syria in October of that year, was the primary target. In the end, America’s position in the region strengthened after Egypt became a US ally and made peace with Israel.

China’s growing interest in the Middle East also decreases the likelihood of an American withdrawal. The US will remain concerned about ensuring the security of energy supplies for its Asian allies, which, like China, are increasingly dependent on the region’s oil exporters.

Nevertheless, while an American withdrawal from the Middle East seems highly unlikely, US exposure to the region will indeed decline; as that happens, America’s role there will probably become more subdued – and perhaps more cynical. Its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely be limited to maintaining the status quo rather than seeking a comprehensive settlement.

This stance – suggested by America’s opposition to granting Palestine observer-state status at the United Nations – would amount to an admission by the US that it has given up on the creation of two states in the Middle East. That would certainly satisfy Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian fringe seeking to weaken the Palestinian Authority. But it would fully vindicate those who believe that Obama is more a man of good will than a visionary.

Zaki Laïdi is Professor of International Relations at Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and the author of Limited Achievements: Obama’s Foreign Policy.