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Oil and Stability: Good Enough to Keep the US in the Gulf?

For decades, the safe transportation of oil from the Persian Gulf has been a major security concern for the United States. In his 1980 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter warned than an attempt by “any outside force” (i.e. the Soviet Union) to dominate the Gulf region would be “an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America.” Likewise, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to the deployment of nearly 600,000 U.S. troops to repel the invasion. But there are reasons for the U.S. to reevaluate the importance of the Gulf, and consider whether it truly needs to invest military resources in protecting it.

Image by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC © 2003

In the past decade, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has made the United States the world’s largest producer of crude oil. This shift makes it much more difficult to justify the financial and military resources it devotes to protecting oil half a world away. According to estimates compiled by Securing America’s Future Energy, the US spends between $38 billion and $109 billion per year protecting global oil supplies. Even the lowest amount in that range is an amount worth reducing if possible.

In 2018, the U.S. imported $21.9 billion worth of crude oil from Saudi Arabia. That same year, Japan imported $31.2 billion worth, China $29.7 billion, South Korea $23.4 billion, and India $21.2 billion. And the Gulf was hardly the United States’ main source of imported oil. In 2018, Canada was by far the top source of U.S. oil imports with 43%, while Saudi Arabia came second with only 9%. The only other Gulf country in the top five, Iraq, accounted for only 5%. China and India, two rising great powers that are dramatically expanding the size of their navies, will be well-positioned in the near future to devote more of their naval strength to securing Gulf oil.

It is true that oil is traded on a global market, and a U.S. refusal to safeguard Gulf oil would affect prices around the world. But it is precisely because oil is a globally important commodity that Washington should insist that other countries do more to protect it. It may have made sense for the United States to foot the bill twenty years ago, at the height of its post-Cold War “unipolar moment.” But in a world where the U.S. is no longer dominant everywhere, it is not only pragmatic, but also fair, for other countries to bear more of the burden.

A decision to back away from the Gulf would likely be politically popular in the U.S., especially at a time of dissatisfaction with conflicts in the Middle East. A July 2019 Pew Research Center poll found solid majorities of Americans saying their country’s wars in Iraq (62%), Afghanistan (59%) and Syria (58%) were “not worth fighting.” And while a use of force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon might garner more support, when Iran attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, a Business Insider poll found only 13% of Americans favoring a military response. A conflict with Iran for any reason would be a wise thing to avoid: according to the Federation of American Scientists, it could cost the global economy between $60 billion and $2 trillion in three months.

The importance of Saudi Arabia to the United States is also worth reevaluating. U.S. arms sales to the kingdom have been a source of controversy during the Saudi-led war in Yemen. However, it is possible to attach strings to these sales in ways that help Gulf nations better protect their own oil. As Andrew Exum, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy, noted in June, Gulf countries purchasing U.S. weapons “haven’t spent much money at all on naval forces that can patrol their sea lanes, or minesweepers that can reopen those same sea lanes through either the Straits of Hormuz or the Bab al-Mandeb.” If Washington were specifically to offer them such vessels, but not airplanes of the kind Saudi Arabia has used to catastrophic effect in Yemen, it could potentially curb Saudi aggression, continue arms sales, and lighten the U.S. security burden all at once.

Even if a U.S. withdrawal led an emboldened Iran to hold oil supplies hostage, and led to a jump in prices, that may not have solely negative effects. The prevalence of climate change on the agenda of the world’s problem solvers is a reason not to panic about high oil prices. It should instead spur countries to increase efforts to reduce their dependence on petroleum products. As uncomfortable as an increase in gasoline prices would be, for example, it could serve as an incentive for automakers to build more electric and diesel-powered cars, and for governments to develop the infrastructure that makes electric cars more practical to own.

The United States’ concern for Gulf oil supplies has been so prominent for so long that it is rarely questioned. But there are political, geopolitical, energy, environmental and moral reasons to reconsider the U.S. role in the Gulf. The most familiar option is not always the wisest.

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Michael Purzycki

Michael has worked as an analyst in the Pentagon and at Bloomberg LP. His primary interests are U.S. defense policy, the Middle East, and energy policy. He has been published in the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.

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