The Very Long Goodbye?

Bloomberg published an extended report on America’s energy independence streak on Monday. The article (titled “Americans Gaining Energy Independence With U.S. Emerging as No. 1 Producer“) claims that, if current trends continue, U.S. production of petroleum could rise to levels rivaling Russia and Saudi Arabia by 2020–making the U.S. a self-sufficient producer and a major exporter once again. Consider the following:

Domestic oil output is the highest in eight years. The U.S. is producing so much natural gas that, where the government warned four years ago of a critical need to boost imports, it now may approve an export terminal. Methanex Corp., the world’s biggest methanol maker, said it will dismantle a factory in Chile and reassemble it in Louisiana to take advantage of low natural gas prices. And higher mileage standards and federally mandated ethanol use, along with slow economic growth, have curbed demand.

The result: The U.S. has reversed a two-decade-long decline in energy independence, increasing the proportion of demand met from domestic sources over the last six years to an estimated 81 percent through the first 10 months of 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from the U.S. Department of Energy. That would be the highest level since 1992.

Al Ajnabee isn’t just about oil, mind you. But American foreign policy in the Middle East could change dramatically if oil became a lesser priority. Indeed, it’s oil that established the late 20th century’s more important presidential doctrines: the Carter doctrine and the Reagan corollary. These declarations were acted upon by George H.W. Bush in 1990, and later used as a pretext for Clinton’s dual containment strategy, paving the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Carter doctrine promised to defend Middle Eastern oil from external threats, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. Reagan’s corollary held that the U.S. would intervene in the Gulf to protect the regional order against internal threats like Iran and Iraq during the 1980s. Both doctrines established what in essence was a Monroe Doctrine in the Middle East.

President James Monroe

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has increased its regional profile and participated in several conflicts at great cost. Washington’s interests have multiplied in the ensuing decades, although no interest has eclipsed oil as the priority. Terrorism, anti-American radicalism, and proliferation all motivate the U.S. to some degree. But the global economy matters more, and the U.S. has invested a great deal in the region so that no unfriendly country could dominate and disrupt oil markets (or take them hostage). If American oil supplies were secure, however, would the U.S. then be able to shrink it’s commitments to the Gulf? Perhaps. But any change is a long way away.

President Jimmy Carter

Consider the situation in Egypt. Though not a Gulf Arab state, and not a major oil exporter, the Arab world’s most populous country acted as an anchor of American policy for decades. Jimmy Carter was able to secure a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979. After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Hosni Mubarak assumed power in Cairo, and maintained close relations with Washington until his ouster in 2011. Now, however, many in Egypt and Washington are reassessing U.S.-Egyptian relations. Steve Cook of CFR summarized the current predicament admirably on February 6. “The last four decades have had many highs and quite a  few lows, but now it is time to move on,” Cook argued on his blog. ” “What was once a strategic relationship built on the firm geo-strategic foundations of containing Soviet influence in the Middle East, forging peace between Arabs and Israelis, and helping to ensure the stability of the region is now an unhealthy codependency with no strategic rationale or direction.”

Cook’s argument is sound–and the national security establishment is listening. U.S. senators, the State Department, and now the Pentagon are prepared to threaten the termination of aid to Egypt should relations deteriorate further. My point is this: if the U.S. can sever ties with a long-time ally like Egypt, it can certainly reconsider commitments to the Persian Gulf. Oil dominates American strategic thinking in the region but this logic is in danger of becoming dated. A change of course might see the U.S. limiting its exposure in the Middle East, avoiding future conflicts, and hopefully encouraging others to police the Gulf.  Europe, Asia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council–perhaps with the addition of Iran–could all contribute to a new post-American security arrangement. The U.S. could even coordinate this shift and internationalize security in the region. It could still participate as the world’s premiere naval force. Gulf Arab states would approve such an initiative; more stakeholders means fewer conflicts, after all. Gulf security would still be a top priority for the U.S., but paying the cost in full–and incurring the resentment of millions–does not serve American interests.

The merits of an international arrangement can be debated another day. We should remember that any significant change in U.S. policy is a long way off. American energy independence seems likelier now than ever–but we’re still possibly a decade away from its realization. Even then, plenty of eventualities could interrupt or delay America’s pursuit of energy independence. Also worth noting is the fact that grand visions for future production are still just visions. Until oil and gas are extracted and in transit or storage, it’s unlikely that America’s approach to the Middle East will change. Any newfound “flexibility” will only be recognized by Washington after it feels that it has the luxury to consider bold change. The long goodbye could be very long indeed.

Note: Leon Hadar argues for the internationalization of Gulf security in his 2005 book, Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East. Check it out.

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One response to “The Very Long Goodbye?

  1. Pingback: Gulf Security in the Age of Oil Abundance | The Foreigner – الأجنبي

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