EVEN WHEN American policy in the Middle East has been about more than oil, it has been about oil. That has sometimes been jarringly obvious, as when Dwight Eisenhower justified his decision to send troops to the region in 1958 on the basis that it was the “birthplace of three great religions”, as well as having “two-thirds of the presently known oil deposits”. At other times the oiliness of America’s policy has been more subtle, or partial. George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 for several reasons: to secure its weapons of mass destruction, to spread democracy, and, his would-be successor John McCain acknowledged, to guarantee America’s oil supply.
Donald Trump’s commitment to reducing America’s involvement in the Middle East also relates to the black stuff. It is justified in part by the shale-oil revolution that has made America the world’s biggest producer, lessening its dependence on the region. The administration’s effort to promote Saudi Arabia as a regional proxy, to help effect its withdrawal, is also somehow oleaginous. The president’s Middle East consigliere, Jared Kushner, sees the country’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, as an oil-important ally against Iran and potential ally for Israel. Mr Trump views the Saudis as oil-rich buyers of American arms and property.
Both oil-related struts of his Middle East policy looked shaky even before the meltdown in oil markets that began last month. A spike in the oil price in September, after a drone strike on a Saudi installation, was a reminder that America is still at the mercy of the global oil market and therefore Middle Eastern instability. The Saudis have proved to be an embarrassing proxy. They have additionally failed to make good on almost any of the arms deals the president trumpeted. And the more he has pushed the bilateral relationship, the more politically toxic it has become.
There are many such contradictions in the administration’s Middle East plans. They are at once ambitious—Mr Trump pledged to end regional terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian threat—and undermined by his serial reluctance to take strong or consistent action. His statements on Iran have been so contradictory it is unclear what his policy is there: regime change or a footling renegotiation of Barack Obama’s nuclear deal. Yet in the absence of a major regional crisis, the sum of the administration’s faltering efforts has looked no worse than that of its recent predecessors. This could be about to change, with a pair of historic crises—an unprecedented calamity on oil markets and a global pandemic—threatening American oil production, Middle Eastern stability and in turn the administration’s diplomatic grip.
The coming decimation of America’s shale-oil firms could eventually lead to renewed dependence on Saudi oil. American production is predicted to fall to 10m barrels a day, around half the country’s pre-pandemic consumption. In the meantime near-universal anti-Saudi feeling in Washington is putting the bilateral relationship under great strain. Last month Republican senators in oil-producing states, who had been almost the Saudis’ last defenders on the Hill, turned furiously against the kingdom. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Dan Sullivan of Alaska introduced legislation to withdraw American troops and missile-defence systems if it did not cut its oil production. Reports this week that a fleet of laden Saudi tankers was en route to oil-glutted America caused fresh fury. Mr Trump suggested he might close the country’s ports to it. The notion of American-Saudi co-operation to reorder the Middle East has rarely looked more fanciful.
Meanwhile a region whose stability America has considered supremely important for seven decades is experiencing two black swans in one swoop. Oil-poor countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain are facing a health-care crisis which their oil-rich neighbours would in normal times send them cash to stave off. Yet the Saudis, in need of an oil price of around $80 a barrel to balance their budget, are focused on fiscal problems at home. A normal American administration might be expected to rally multilateral agencies to make up the shortfall for the poorer Arab states. Mr Trump is instead trying to defund the World Health Organisation.
This represents a threat of instability that Iran will try to exploit. Though badly afflicted by the coronavirus, it shows no sign of reducing its operations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Meanwhile Israel could soon start annexing the West Bank. All in all, the chances of a regional blowout, which America will either be drawn into or castigated for neglecting, are rising again.
A couple of lessons can already be drawn from this troubling prospect. One is that America’s reduced dependence on the Middle East is not making its regional policymaking any easier. Quite the contrary: where there was once bipartisan backing for bold interventions, finding support for modest commitments would now be hard even if Mr Trump had not politicised every aspect of his foreign policy. Instead of bragging of “American energy dominance”, a phrase that now looks especially foolish, a wiser administration would have sought to build support for a more nuanced Middle East policy: more modest than Mr Bush’s, more resolute than Mr Obama’s, and consistent in its aims.
Oleaginous and always with us
Another lesson is that a lighter American footprint in the region requires broad-based alliances, not headstrong proxies. The first are a means to rise above the region’s interminable petty rivalries, the second almost a guarantee of being dragged into them. America has a rich legacy of the right sort of partnership, including the trans-Atlantic ones behind Mr Obama’s nuclear deal and a patchwork of regional allies. But Mr Trump has squandered them.
The trans-Atlantic pact has foundered on his attack on the nuclear deal. And when asked on American television who was helping his country through the pandemic, King Abdullah of Jordan, a longtime ally, gave a startling answer. He was grateful, he said, to the United Arab Emirates and the Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The limits of energy independence”