Map of selected oil and gas infrastructure in West Asia, by US Department of Energy.

The logic of US involvement in the Middle East: a response

I recently wrote a response to an article on Syria Comment, and have also posted it below. The article gave me a lot of food for thought and inspired me to write a long comment. Syria Comment is a blog set up by Joshua Landis, and, if memory serves, I’ve enjoyed reading it since 2009. He’s openly inquisitive, informative, and invites discussion. The article to which I responded – U.S. Involves itself Ever Deeper in Middle East with No Clear Strategic Interest, by Sam Farah – was written by a guest author, I think an increasingly common feature as the blog has gained in popularity.

Here’s my response (and the original article is linked above):

Thank you for illustrating your thoughts so clearly and providing such a rich collection of information.

I’d like to address some of the points mentioned in this post. I have some contrary thoughts on key segments and hope that this will help myself and others to together think over the situation in order to understand some of its complexities.

I apologise for the length of this comment and understand if you choose not to include it because of this. I enjoyed reading your piece and it provoked many considerations in me, so I want to give it the respect it deserves in order to respond in kind and to think alongside the post.

You mentioned that the “deepening engagement of the U.S. in the Middle East […] is contrary to the geopolitical interests of the U.S.”

I don’t think this is the case. Let me be clear that I think geopolitical interest is a subjective category, meaning that what you perceive is in the interest of a given party is based on the kind of world you desire, what international and domestic society you judge best suitable for that goal, and what systems and tools you bring to bear in order to try and create or maintain the particular domestic and international social world you have designs for.

Of course, then, whatever you understand as national or geopolitical interest will vary accordingly. As I understand the term and tradition of geopolitics, it is tied to a contest for international power and dominance. Therefore, I’ll not judge the situation you’ve so kindly presented based on my own principles of what I think are best for the people. In this particular case, I’ll judge US ‘interest’ according to a zero-sum contest for global power over others, for hegemony. So, in this case, I take the geopolitical interest of the US to be the one defined by the narrow group of people who are in charge of policy and its execution on the world stage.

I’ll elaborate on this point a little further… Geopolitical interest, from the perspective of these ruling elites, is one in which the US has pride of place on the world stage. That the leaders of that country are at the very least afforded a chief seat at every table of international decision-making; that the institutions and systems of norms, rules, and decision-making processes be according to their design. In short that the US, as a country provides these select groups the means by which to exercise power over others on the world stage, to such an extent that they’re ‘world leaders’, or more directly: that they can call the shots and compel others to follow their lead.

There’s enough evidence to show that this is indeed the desire of the most powerful among the governing elites, by simply quoting and referring to their reports, strategy documents, goals documents, etc. However, if you still doubt this, then maybe you would consider humouring this as at least a fantastic possibility and then seeing if, in this definition of ‘geopolitical interest’ the currently visible Middle East strategy is indeed logical for the purpose of global hegemony.

You mention that: “The U.S. already has significant forward power projection in the region [Middle East], with both the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain and the U.S. Air Force at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar. The security of both these bases is jeopardized and the cost of maintaining our presence there is increased by provoking Iran as Trump and Pompeo are doing.”

I think that the reason that these bases, in Bahrain, Qatar (and other relevant regional locations) are valuable is that much of the world’s oil supply passes through the Gulf, and from there to other parts initially by sea. A threat posed by Iran is not that the bases will be attacked but that that particular transit route of oil and gas is threatened. The threat could come in non-military form, by establishing alternate routes: via land (pipelines as most obvious) through Central or South Asia eastward, north to Russia, west via Syria perhaps to Mediterranean ports that can then expand an alternate route via the sea there, etc. Therefore, threat of instability and conflict at the very least decreases the attraction of these alternatives. The current route affords the US with primacy as a policing agent that can OK or deny access to the existing sea-borne route. That route, if not directly vital to the US domestic consumption, is vital to that of others such as India, China, Japan, S. Korea, etc.

For example, this is (only) part of what can permit the US to effectively sanction other countries that import Iranian oil against US wishes and embargoes.

However, here we can see that the scenario I just gave is only partially true. There’s a non-military, political-economic component that hasn’t been yet mentioned. That is, that an alternate route may well also establish an alternate supporting economic and financial system to make it possible. New insurances, new foreign exchange regimes for trade payments, etc. than those already established in favour of the existing system. The existing economic, political (international rules systems), and financial mechanisms used in the current energy flow are established in the US and that of its allies, favouring that alliance system along with its geopolitical interests. An alternate system could favour the interests of an altogether different group.

For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is just such a case. It builds new transit routes for all manner of goods, favours new terrains secured by their own military strong-points, and establishes a new set of international rules, organisations, and financial systems.

For the sake of keeping this comment/response from getting far too long, I’ll not go into an explanation of the incredible power afforded to the US via the US dollar’s role as the global reserve currency. The function of the dollar in that role is currently heavily tied to its role as a medium for the global exchange of oil. Changing circumstances such as transits routes, financial institutions, etc. are important in undermining or maintaining this. So, I think that no matter the reduction of direct utility of Middle Eastern oil for the US domestic market, or of trade with that region, the Middle East is very important, perhaps vitally so, for the maintenance of US global power projection in its existing form.

I’ll simply end with a couple of quotes from Qiao Liang, a Chinese general and noted strategist:

“[W]henever a great power rises, there is a corresponding globalization movement. This means that globalization is not a phenomenon that has continued from the past all the way to the present; rather it belongs to a great power.”

And

“One Belt, One Road is not simply to join the global economic system, which is a globalization under the U.S. dollar. As a rising super power, the “One Belt, One Road” strategy is the beginning of China’s own globalization.”

Thanks for taking the time to write, and, therefore, for pushing me to think.


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