MADRID – The Pacific or the Middle East? For the United States, that is now the primary strategic question. The violence in Gaza, coming as President Barack Obama was meeting Asia’s leaders in Phnom Penh, perfectly encapsulates America’s dilemma. Instead of being able to focus on US foreign policy’s “pivot” to Asia, Obama was forced to spend many hours in conversation with the leaders of Egypt and Israel, and to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Asia, in order to facilitate a cease-fire in Gaza.
Of the two geopolitical focal points demanding America’s attention, one represents the future and the other the past. Whereas Asia played an important role in a US presidential election campaign that was marked by often-heated references to China’s rise, the Middle East has kept the US bogged down for decades. In addition to the eternal Israel-Palestine conflict, Iraq’s instability, the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war, and the ongoing nuclear standoff with Iran all demand America’s attention.
If the Iran crisis were to boil over, the pivot to Asia would no longer be America’s main foreign-policy priority. But if the dispute with Iran is resolved diplomatically, the Middle East might, perhaps, be relegated to a position of lesser importance, as Obama clearly desires. The question, therefore, is whether the US will find itself drawn into another war in a region on which it depends less and less for energy.
Indeed, the revolution in non-conventional hydrocarbons, particularly shale gas and oil, which the International Energy Agency recently predicted would make the US the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, and the top energy producer overall by 2030, will have enormous global repercussions. For the US, energy self-sufficiency is the perfect excuse for a phased withdrawal from the Middle East; freed from energy dependency, America should be able to concentrate on the Pacific.