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Ignorance Isn't Bliss 

by SHANE MAHONEY & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & midst the public debate concerning our military involvement in Iraq, remarkably little attention has been devoted to the hard-core matter of strategic American national interests in that region of the world. Once Saddam's weapons of mass destruction proved to be a chimera, much has been said about the moral generosity of toppling Saddam's cruel tyranny, building democracy, and confronting al-Queda there rather than here at home. But neither the administration nor its critics have squarely confronted the basic issue of American national interests in the Persian Gulf region - at least not in public. Nevertheless, such interests do exist, they are real, and they will confront any party that occupies the White House or controls the Congress. While the present administration has been remarkably inept at addressing such interests, no administration can afford to turn its back on them or treat American involvement in the Middle East as a matter of mere economic and democratic charity to the people of that region. If strategic American interests are involved, it is difficult to fathom why securing them should be left to others.

In the first place, the public debate has "politely" refrained from drawing attention to the serious currents of instability that afflict friendly regimes in that area. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are confronted by significant unemployment (as high as 25-30%), extensive welfare services that are stretched thin, and growing populations of youth whose educated members are trained in the Koran as opposed to skills that contribute to modern economic development. Increasingly, such regimes have bought stability by accepting American support (at a distance) while resorting to greater repression and acceding to their own, radical, Islamist elements. In the short run, this has worked as an effective trade-off for regime survival. In the long run, however, is not sustainable; and, left to itself, the inevitable political transition is hardly favorable to the U.S. - or most of the other industrial societies.

Stable political regimes in the Gulf region, tolerably disposed, or at least not inimical, to Western values, are in the interest of the U.S. and the global economy. How transition of this region toward such an outcome might be shaped and guided without the stabilizing influence of U.S. involvement is impossible to imagine. It is a pipe dream to think that the region can do it on its own or to anticipate that the outcome would be favorable if it were guided by the nearby, "neighborly" influence of Russia - whose own gas and oil exports profit from Gulf instability. Moreover, in view of the region's history of inherent conflicts, it is equally implausible to conclude that withdrawal of the U.S. would result in tranquility. In the absence of U.S. leverage, transition in the Gulf will, nonetheless, takes place. As it proceeds, chances are very good that the resulting regimes will be heavily disposed toward radical Islamist sentiments - including accelerated cultivation of jihadist ideologues prepared to violently engage western societies. While it may be comforting to think that, in a "flat world," political and cultural change will inexorably result in Western-type societies, that is by no means obvious for the Middle East.

Yet, concern with instability in the Gulf region might be easily overlooked without consequence except for two other variables in the equation: oil and Israel. The modern industrial world runs on oil. That goes for the U.S. as well as all of those developed countries that we trade with. In fact, all of the nations that aspire to a higher standard of living, including the developing countries, must rely mainly on oil. This is a reality for the foreseeable future, one that no amount of alternative energy development can quickly alter. Even were the U.S. to become entirely energy self-sufficient, it would easily fall victim to a global economic collapse if access by our trading partners to Persian Gulf oil were significantly disrupted. Given the dominant contribution that the Gulf area makes to world oil supplies, about 40% of the global petroleum market, a decline of as little as ten percent in its output, or what some have referred to as an "energy Pearl Harbor," could have fateful consequences for the machinery of industrial societies. Looking forward in relation to increased energy demand and the diminishing cushion that strategic reserves might provide against supply disruptions, it is important to bear in mind that the Gulf region possesses 60% of known oil reserves and 40% of natural gas reserves. It is thus a piece of geography that is intimately tied to the health and survival of modern industrial society well into the future.

Some have argued that regardless of the nature of regimes in the Middle East, they would have to sell their oil. After all, they can't eat it; and they don't have much else to trade - so there is little worry about. But chiliastic regimes sometimes prefer self-immolation to economic prosperity or survival. Moreover, even were such regimes willing to sell, conditions would certainly be attached - conditions related to the causes of the Islamist diaspora sprinkled around the world, from head scarves to national separatism. In fact, the most obvious condition likely to be imposed by radical Islamist regimes in return for oil is support for their cause against Israel. Some erstwhile friends

Saudi Petroleum Processing and Transshipment Infrastructure in the Gulf of the U.S., especially those with very poor energy supplies of their own, like Japan, or with large domestic Muslim populations, like Germany, or France, which fits both profiles, may well concede. Others, like China, facing their own potential instability and rapidly expanding need for oil, might also go along. Russia, with oil to export and a close commercial relationship with Iran, would certainly rise in prominence and leverage. And the Russian leadership has already demonstrated its willingness to cut off oil as a device of political pressure. Questions concerning N.A.T.O. expansion and Eastern Europe would almost certainly be reopened, with the splintering of the alliance more than a small possibility. In the Far East, Japan's long-standing claim to the southern Kuril Islands would quickly become moot. If, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Steve Kroft of CBS Radio, American concern with Iraq "... has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil," the Secretary was either dissembling or blind to strategic realities. Either possibility is very troubling.

At the same time, Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions are now well documented. In tandem with their progress, others in the region would surely follow suit. Possessing ample resources from oil and easier access to market technologies, what would stop them? Certainly, in light of recent history, not Pakistan or North Korea, or even China - nor Russia, in view of the advantage it enjoys in Gulf turmoil. With the proliferation of primitive nuclear missile systems, typified by designs especially prone to accidental or unauthorized use and dependent on a hair trigger launch strategy (Launch On Warning) for their employment, Israel, with its own nuclear arsenal, could hardly be expected to look on with patient disinterest. In fact, Iran's present Shahab-3 intermediate range ballistic missile is presently able to reach Israel and may have already been sufficiently modified to reach parts of Europe.

A more precarious brew is hard to imagine. Even without an unthinkable "small nuclear war" in the region, the thinkable prospect of one would certainly drive the futures price of available oil well over $200 a barrel. And there is no telling where it would go were transshipment of oil from the Gulf stopped by the increasingly easy closure of the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which most of it passes. Destruction of the huge Saudi petroleum-processing terminal at Abqaiq or closure of the world's largest oil shipping port at Ras Tanura (together responsible for about 12 million barrels per day - about 15% of the world's output) would also suffice to produce the same, devastating outcome. While heavily guarded against conventional attack, these critical facilities, together with the Strait itself, will only become more vulnerable as proliferation of WMD progresses in the region. Clearly, the issue was never confined to Iraq alone.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e may reasonably argue over what the U.S. should do about these trends, but there is simply no denying their reality. Nor is it possible to play down their potential consequence for the U.S. - at least not with a straight face. No American administration could stand by and watch radical Islamist regimes cause a global economic collapse through the manipulation of oil supplies. By the same token, neither could an American administration permit such regimes to destroy Israel or to initiate a regional nuclear conflict, or even to leverage America's friends with threats. Whether Americans like it or not, the fate of the U.S. and its friends is heavily tied to a stable political transition of the Middle East. It is not a question of charity toward the region - with an implied threat that the American largess might be withdrawn in the absence of sufficient appreciation or local support. Nor is it within the ambit of reality to imagine that the actors in this shaky region might themselves galvanize a broad based "diplomatic" solution to the instability - "That we can't do for them what they will not do for themselves." Rather, it is a matter of crucial and legitimate American national interests in which the U.S. must be actively involved. Specifically how these interests are pursued and secured for the future should be a matter of open public discussion.

One thing, however, is clear: America cannot be a positive, stabilizing influence in the Gulf region without a significant, long-term, combat presence there. This is something that cannot be accomplished from a distance or through the presence of increasingly vulnerable U.S. aircraft carriers. Nor are there welcoming accommodations available for such a combat presence somewhere in the region just "over the horizon." Successful diplomacy has always required more than mere talk. Thus, even the regional diplomatic solution that many call for would require that the U.S. function as a military guarantor, unless one can foresee the dominant actors in the area, like Egypt, Iran, Syria, the Saudis, and what remains of Iraq, together with Israel, politically policing themselves and resolving their historical disputes so as to secure what amount to U.S. and global interests the area. In this regard, one can only puzzle at the recommendation of Zbigniew Brzezinsik, President Carter's National Security Adviser, that the U.S. should promptly withdraw from Iraq and then call a conference of the world's major petroleum dependent nations with an eye to creating stable access to Gulf oil. Perhaps Brzezinski has a magic wand - though he should have used it to deal with the Iranian hostage debacle he presided over in the late 1970s when the Sha was overthrown and the U.S. was unable to so much as successfully insert a helicopter rescue mission into the area to retrieve its citizens held hostage.

Thus far, the rhetoric of neither party has addressed the critical issue of long-term American national interests in the Gulf. While the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, with their ideological blinders and profound incompetence, have dangerously jeopardized the national interest, the Democrats have elected to ignore such concerns. Far too much is at stake for America's future to be dealt with in this manner. American national interests must be made part of the public discourse. The issues addressed above are well known to strategic security analysts and petroleum specialists. Sustained effectiveness in foreign policy, however, requires broad public understanding and support - the "acid test" as Henry Kissinger once put it. Without it, the most essential objectives of American national interests cannot be pursued successfully.

Over 50 years ago, America's greatest foreign policy achievement, the Marshall Plan, was designed and presented to the public in a sophisticated, deliberate effort by an open and well-coordinated administration. As a result, with a GDP only one sixth of what it is today, a Democratic president received broad public support as well as congressional Republican approval for the largest peacetime spending program the U.S. has ever undertaken. Then, only a few years later, with a population half of what it is today, America fielded an armed force of almost three million, or twice what we currently maintain. The issue that confronts contemporary American foreign policy is not what our resources will allow, for that is very large, but, rather, what objectives should receive our attention and whether we are willing to make the necessary sacrifice so as to avoid much larger and more painful atonement later.

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