Must America Be in the Middle East?

Victor Davis Hanson // National Review

Since World War II, the United States has identified a number of national interests in the Greater Middle East, a region often defined quite loosely as the Arab nations (including those of North Africa), Israel, and sometimes Turkey, as well as Iran, the Horn of Africa countries, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

During the Cold War period, from 1946 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, American bipartisan foreign policy identified a strategic need for the region’s petroleum. Gulf oil was seen as critical in augmenting America’s own seemingly finite supply or ensuring the free world’s access to it. Thus was born the post-war U.S. realist interest in the Middle East — a region that after the 15th-century discovery of the New World lost the strategic global position it had held since classical antiquity.

The United States backed most prominently the House of Saud and neighboring Persian Gulf monarchies and dictatorships on the rationale that they would endlessly pump oil and sell it to the West at a fair price. British Petroleum enjoyed a more or less controlling oil interest in Iran, and U.S. oil companies had a free hand in Saudi Arabia; both nations maneuvered with other regimes to develop oil-exporting industries. The ensuing conspiracy theories, coups, and succession scraps of Arab and Persian strongmen fueled a half century of “Great Satan” chanting and the burning of American flags on the Middle East street.

At various times, U.S. presidents sought to deny the Soviet Union the ability to harness the region’s resources and thereby leverage Western oil-dependent economies. Most notable was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s success, in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in flipping Anwar Sadat’s Egypt from being a Russian client to being a de facto American ally. For all practical purposes, the Russians stayed ostracized from the Middle East until Secretary of State John Kerry in 2012 naïvely invited them back in after a roughly 40-year hiatus — supposedly to help monitor Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian depot of weapons of mass destruction. Huge new finds of Russian gas and oil in the 1980s and 1990s had made the Middle East less important to Russia, although regional chaos that spiked oil prices and hurt Western economies was always welcome to Moscow, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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