The U.S. relationship with the Middle East is probably one of the most controversial (and sometimes confusing) of American foreign policy. Within this broader relationship, there are multiple, often competing, conflicts and areas of interest. This includes fights like the Palestinians versus Israelis, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, Syria versus the Kurds, Turkey versus the Kurds, and even the Kurds versus the Kurds. In each of these, the United States has a tendency to choose a side and attempt to advance the fortunes of one side over the other in ways that benefit the “national interest.” So when President Trump made the unexpected announcement that American troops would withdraw completely from Syria and draw down the American presence in Afghanistan, a major debate opened up about whether or not this action would be helpful or harmful to American interests in the Middle East. This week, we’ll try to understand why the United States is so interested (pun intended) in the region and how this can impact your life.
Oil & Economics
The first thing that everyone thinks about when they consider America’s relationship with the Middle East is that oil reigns supreme. The Middle East is certainly extremely important with regards to petroleum production, but not so much for the United States anymore. Though America’s imports of oil from the Middle East were much higher in previous decades, this has been supplanted by domestic production and substantial imports from Canada (not to mention the growing renewable energy market). Instead, Middle Eastern oil has become much more important for rapidly developing nations like China and India. So while the United States isn’t as directly invested in Middle Eastern oil as it used to be, America’s interests are primarily in making sure that markets in China, India, and the rest of the world are not upended by dramatic upheavals in oil prices.
Related to this is the question of trade routes. Throughout history, the Middle East has been known as a critical link in trade routes between the “East” and the “West" (and is a prominent trade destination in its own right). Though the land routes of the old Silk Road are no longer prominent, the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal remain key trade routes that keep global commerce running smoothly. Because of this, nations like Egypt (which maintains the Suez Canal), Saudi Arabia (which borders the Red Sea), and Iran (which borders the strait of Hormuz) are of critical importance. Freedom of navigation and the unobstructed flow of global commerce is critical to America’s interests. Stable petroleum markets and unrestricted trade keep prices stable for a wide range of goods right here at home. So the United States often has to make difficult choices in maintaining relationships in order to prevent destabilizing events from triggering a recession.
People often believe that America’s core interest in the Middle East is also centered on its importance in the religion of Islam. After all, Muslims all around the world turn their heads towards the region five times each day. But while Saudi Arabia claims to be the final authority on religious matters and often promotes its image as “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” the full influence of Saudi Arabia on the religion is rather limited. For example, Saudi Arabia’s rival nation Iran claims to be the final authority for the Shia denomination, which represents a smaller fraction of the Muslim population throughout the world.
But in reality, a major reason for the reduced influence of the Middle East on global Islam is simply due to the structure of the religion itself. Unlike Christianity (or Catholicism at least), Islam tends to be less hierarchical and more community based. There is no commonly recognized Caliph in Islam anymore, and even when there was, people often ignored the Caliph’s religious decrees in favor of the teachings of their own local Imams. Then there is the wide variety of different schools of religious thought. The Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia have a much different philosophy than Shafi’i Muslims in Indonesia and especially those in Europe and the United States. So a fatwa (which is simply a religious ruling, not necessarily a condemnation), issued by a cleric in Saudi Arabia might be completely ignored by most Muslims around the world. Where nations like Saudi Arabia do have influence is with the fight against radicalism in Islam. Unfortunately, Saudi itself has been one of the leading exporters of fundamentalism in the region as a means to help spread its influence and win regional proxy battles.
Security & Arms Sales
But of all of these, perhaps the biggest interest of the United States in the region is simply that of maintaining the existing security establishment. Almost nobody wants to see a full-scale war break out in the region, so most conflicts that do occur are either internal civil conflicts or battles with smaller, less influential nations. And the way in which America attempts to ensure stability is through military protection and the selling of military hardware. Deterrence only works when both sides believe they will lose a war (or nearly destroy themselves trying to win one). So if, for instance, Iran believes that it can attack Saudi Arabia before Saudi can retaliate, the calculation for going to war changes substantially. These sales can help nations like Saudi Arabia feel that they could confidently defend themselves against surprise attacks.
But to be fair, this isn’t entirely altruistic. The United States gains a substantial amount of money and influence from these sales. Nations that use American hardware often have a closer relationship with the United States because they need to train with the U.S. military on this equipment. In addition, they usually need to use American manufacturers to procure replacement parts. Policymakers typically find it difficult to run afoul of American manufacturers and defense contractors since they often provide a substantial jobs boost to their constituencies back home. None of this is intended to defend arms sales in the face of growing criticism over events like Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However these considerations do make it much more difficult to simply end America’s program of arms sales and military protection abroad. Furthermore, if large-scale war were to break out in the Middle East, it would drastically destabilize global markets and hinder America’s ability to focus on other pressing concerns of international relations.
Finally, there is the unique intersection of domestic politics with the Middle East. In particular, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict generates strong and controversial interest. Evangelical churches in the United States have a strong and devout following, and the protection of the nation of Israel often factors into particular religious beliefs surrounding the return of the messiah. This can be seen in the increasing politicization of policies favorable to Israel. The Iran nuclear deal in particular sparked fierce division in American domestic politics due to Israel’s strong (and continuing) opposition. Such divisions are only worsening in the United States over issues like the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and the recent move of America’s embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In all, there are many (often contradictory) factors that help shape America’s interests in the Middle East. But overall, the biggest can simply be described as that of maintaining general stability and the security of America’s strongest allies. Many areas of the Middle East have simmering tensions that could boil over and threaten large-scale conflict at any moment. Why does this matter to the average American? Well, we should all hope to prevent warfare and the tragedies that it causes. But insecurity and war also drive up energy/petroleum costs, destabilize markets (possibly triggering recessions), and force the mass migration of refugees to Europe and the United States. And lastly, violent conflict helps breed radicalism, further increasing the likelihood of even more conflict and terrorism in the future. So the next time policymakers discuss the Middle East, remember that there are many reasons the United States is interested in the region.