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Tough Talk and Sanctions Hide Declining US Interest in the Middle East

26 Sep 2019
By Dr Andrew Gawthorpe
Donald Trump signs an Executive Order in June 2019 authorising sanctions against Iran. Flickr: White House

Donald Trump has substituted Republican talking points for a rational foreign policy. His ability to do so points to a larger truth: the Middle East just doesn’t matter to America as much as it used to.

The story that would lead to a series of missiles smashing into a Saudi Aramco oil facility earlier this month began in May of last year, when U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known colloquially as the “Iran deal.”  Citing no evidence that Tehran had failed to uphold its end of the bargain, Trump announced that the United States would no longer consider itself bound by the agreement.  Instead, a campaign of “maximum pressure” was designed to force Iran to grant further concessions to Washington.  In a speech, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented a laundry list of 12 demands which amounted to a total reversal of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.

Iran’s fightback began shortly afterwards.  Tehran announced that it too would no longer consider itself bound by the deal and stepped up its uranium enrichment.  Then, earlier this year, Tehran executed a series of violent provocations seemingly designed to demonstrate both defiance and the country’s ability to disrupt the global supply of oil.  Iranian forces blew holes in several oil tankers, shot down an American surveillance drone, and allegedly attacked the Aramco facility.  In response, the United States has done – well, not much.  Trump even called off a planned military strike on Iran just minutes before it was due to be executed.

What accounts for this inaction from a president who has threatened to “totally destroy” his enemies with “fire and fury”?  There are two broad explanations, one specific to Trump and one which points to larger developments in American foreign policy which will likely last beyond his time in office.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal was a result of two factors which have shaped so much of his foreign policy.  The first is his supreme confidence in his own talents as a “dealmaker”, and the second is his desire to feed red meat to his conservative base.  It has long been an article of faith on the right that the Iran deal represented a surrender of American interests and those of its allies.  Even as the mainstream American strategic community recognized the value of a narrow agreement that at the very least slowed Iran’s march towards a nuclear weapon, many conservative politicians and pundits demanded nothing less than Tehran’s complete surrender.  For a president keen to repudiate everything has predecessor did and show off his own dealmaking prowess, pulling out of the deal seemed inevitable.

Perhaps the greater surprise has been that since walking away, Trump has refused to become sucked into the cycle of escalation which some in Tehran dearly want.  Rather than treating matters in the Persian Gulf as an urgent national security problem to which a solution must be found, Trump has seemed to view Iran’s behaviour as a distraction.  He – and those who have cheered him on – have no idea how to actually translate their campaign of “maximum pressure” into a new deal, and seemingly little interest in actually doing so.  Nor, as Trump has made clear, does he want to actually use military force to dial the pressure up further, as many on his right wish him to do.  Trump’s plan seems to be to not have a plan, and let events meander where they may.

When considered this way, it becomes clear that – like the British politicians who championed Leave in the Brexit referendum – Trump has ripped up an international agreement in service of a political talking point without having any realistic idea of what might replace it.  And his very ability to do this with respect to Iran reveals a deeper truth about the place of the Middle East in American foreign policy: it simply isn’t as important as it used to be.

Modern American foreign policy in the Middle East has been based on the idea that the free flow of oil from the region is a vital US national security interest.  This basic truth has accounted for the outsized role that the Middle East has occupied in American foreign policy since Jimmy Carter stated in 1980 that the US would militarily resist any attempt by a single power to dominate the region.  Even the war on terror had its origins in Osama bin Laden’s grievances against the presence of American troops in the Middle East – troops who would hardly have been there in the first place if all that lay beneath the Arabian sands was more sand.

But in the previous decade, the importance of all that oil to Washington has plummeted.  In 2018, the United States produced more oil than any other country in the world – 18 percent of global production as against Saudi Arabia’s 12 percent, Russia’s 11 percent, and Canada’s 5 percent.  As a result, US imports of Saudi oil were at a record low in 2018.  There is still one global oil market, meaning price fluctuations affect everyone, and the US does still import a substantial quantity of oil from Saudi Arabia, but the revolution in hydraulic fracking has pushed Washington much closer to its goal of energy independence.  The US now produces just slightly less energy than it consumes annually.

It is hardly surprising that these developments will tend to disentangle the United States from the Middle East in the long term.  They will feed the anti-interventionist impulses of both the Trumpist right and the left wing of the Democratic Party, both of which are fed up with the high costs and low benefits of recent American foreign policy in the region.

On the other hand, there is reason to believe that Iran will continue to calibrate its actions below the level which would cause a truly major disruption to the international oil market.  The US can and probably will ignore small provocations whose costs in terms of market disruption are so much less than a full-scale war, but if the provocations themselves become disruptive enough then this reason for avoiding war would no longer exist.  Major disruption would also harm America’s allies and perhaps lead them to turn on Iran, whereas so far they mostly fault the Trump administration for its decision to walk away from the Iran deal in the first place.

When clear material interests do not exist, foreign policy can often become the plaything of domestic politics.  America’s decision to walk away from the Iran deal without any serious plan for how to replace it can hence be taken more as a sign of the declining importance of the Middle East in U.S. foreign policy than a genuine attempt by the Trump administration to fashion a new policy towards the region.  Over the long term, the outcome for the region could be profound – including a necessity for US allies like Saudi Arabia, as Donald Trump demanded in a 2014 tweet, to “fight their own wars.”

Andrew J. Gawthorpe is a Lecturer in History and International Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands.  Find him on Twitter @andygawt.