By Daniel Krcmaric
As the United States winds down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and implements a “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, it seems appropriate to take stock of America’s future role in the Middle East.
The logic underlying the strategic pivot is that the dominant foreign policy issues of the coming decades—in particular, the rise of China’s economic and military power—will occur in Asia. Since the pivot is occurring in an era of defense spending cuts, the U.S. will need to reduce significantly its commitments in the Middle East if it wants to make a true strategic pivot toward Asia. While the pivot makes sense given the current and anticipated future power projection capabilities of China (and several other states in the Asia-Pacific region), it is not clear that pivoting away from the Middle East is feasible.
Why not? Oil. Simply put, the health of the American economy depends in part on the stable flow of affordable oil, thus making the Middle East a strategically important region. While much of the rhetoric surrounding the pivot correctly notes that vital U.S. interests were not at stake in Iraq or Afghanistan, it obscures the fact that America’s commitment to maintaining a strong military presence in the Middle East predates these recent conflicts. Indeed, the U.S. has long sought to prevent the rise of a regional power and/or the intervention of a hostile foreign power that could potentially control the region’s oil wealth. This is especially true in the years since the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, during which oil-rich states in the Middle East have consumed an extensive share of America’s time and resources. Looking ahead, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran that could potentially threaten to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz suggests continued U.S. involvement in the region is likely. Moreover, China currently depends—and will rely even more heavily in the future—on oil imports from the Middle East. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that at least part of the coming geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China will occur in the Middle East.
Given this, is the U.S. doomed to remain bogged down in the Middle East? Not necessarily. Revolutionary technological advances in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and massive new discoveries of natural gas—along with improved fuel economy standards—mean America’s energy dependence on the Middle East will decrease in the following years. The magnitude of that decrease, however, is open to debate. Talk of American energy independence is popular within some circles, although more prudent analysts warn against over-optimism. While we can’t predict the future of developments in American energy, one thing seems clear: a true strategic pivot from the Middle East to Asia is possible only to the extent that the United States reduces its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Daniel Krcmaric is a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Duke University.
By Charles Miller
Imagine this same exercise had been carried out by British strategists in 1930 and they had been asked what the majority of wars would look like in the coming thirty years. Many of them would have answered that they would be ‘North West Frontier’ type campaigns, or what we today would call COIN. And they would have been right. The majority of the wars the British Army fought between 1930 and 1960 were indeed COIN, but one of the two sole wars which were not COIN – World War Two – had an impact which was far greater than any of the rest, bankrupting the country, almost leading to the extinction of national independence and costing over half a million dead.
Conventional wars are a low probability, high impact event – a ‘Black Swan’ as Naseem Nicholas Taleb would have it. Contrary to the beliefs of some, they have always been rare relative to other types of conflict. Conventional war has been getting somewhat rarer over the last few decades, but there have been decades in the past, as measured by the Correlates of War project, in which they have been even rarer, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of all wars. Moreover, in terms of human and financial cost they dwarf non-conventional wars and so prudent decision making would suggest the United States should not neglect conventional war fighting capabilities in order to beef up its COIN capacities.
Proponents of the view that the future should be all about COIN make two arguments. First, they project the immediate past into the future and claim that because most recent wars have been COIN, most future wars will be too. This is not only a great way to end up fighting the last war rather than the next one, but it also could be an example of the ‘availability heuristic’ – a cognitive shortcut which leads us to overestimate the probability of a given event occurring in the future simply because we personally have experienced and can recall it. The second point is that the United States’ overwhelming conventional superiority means that enemy actors will have no choice but to resort to unconventional means to fight it.
This argument is very attractive, however it ignores two points. The first is that America’s conventional superiority may not be as overwhelming in future as it has been in the past, with the rise of other potential great powers. The second is that unconventional warfare is in fact quite difficult to pull off – it requires a very high degree of trust in one’s subordinates to allow them to discard their uniforms and blend into the civilian population where you can no longer monitor whether they are actually fighting or not. This degree of trust eluded Saddam Hussein and could very well also elude Assad or Kim Jong-Un also. In fact, there are surprisingly few examples in history of weaker states foreswearing conventional resistance altogether and opting to fight via unconventional methods immediately.
None of this should be taken as suggesting that a future large scale conventional war is likely, or that significant defense cuts are not necessary. It is simply to remind us all that it would have to be almost certainly extinct for us to stop devoting some part of our capacity to thinking about and preparing for it. We have not reached that point yet and may very well not in the near future.
Mr. Miller is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Duke University.
Joseph Nye has said security is like oxygen: everyone enjoys it when it is present and few fully appreciate it until it is absent, at which point regaining it becomes an all-consuming obsession.
At a recent workshop on grand strategy, one of my colleagues observed that American power may be like gravity: it is hard to evaluate its reach and impact until it is gone, at which point we are likely to miss it acutely.
He is on to something that policymakers have recognized but have struggled to articulate in a way that won’t get mocked by academics (cf. “indispensable power”). Certainly the United States has not always wielded its power perfectly, and there are doubtless instances when some (perhaps many) other international actors would have preferred “less United States involvement.” But the United States has been a critical provider of global public goods, especially global public goods in the security sphere and a world where the United States is both unwilling and incapable of providing those public goods is likely to be a world far less congenial for many global actors — including, ironically, many who have made a cottage industry of blaming America first for the world’s problems.
Perhaps the question is best put this way: what global problem will be easier to solve if the United States is weaker relative to other countries and, feeling that weakness, is less-willing to engage globally?