Asia and a Post-American Middle East

KUWAIT CITY – When the consequences of the United States-led invasion of Iraq ten years ago are fully assessed, the importance of the subsequent rise of political Islam there – and throughout the wider Middle East – may well pale in comparison to that of a geostrategic shift that no one foresaw at the time. That shift, however, has now come into view. With America approaching energy self-sufficiency, a US strategic disengagement from the region may become a reality.

The Middle East, of course, has experienced the withdrawal of a great power, or powers, many times before: the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I; the fraying of the French and British imperial mandates after World War II; and, most recently, the nearly complete disappearance of Russian influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Each time, monumental changes in the region’s politics, particularly its alliances, quickly followed. If America attempts to wash its hands of the Middle East in the coming years, will a similar rupture be inevitable?

Although many believe that the US-Israel alliance is the foundation of America’s Middle East policy, it was dependence on imported oil that motivated the US to establish a dominant military presence in the region after 1945. Indeed, until the Six Day War of June 1967, the US was not a major supplier of military hardware to Israel. America’s military presence was intended, above all, to preserve the Arab status quo, and hence the flow of energy from the Persian Gulf, for the benefit of the US, its allies, and the entire global economy.

Of course, no one should think that America’s shale-gas revolution (which has brought it to the brink of energy self-sufficiency) means that its Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet will lift anchor any time soon. But the rationale for America’s commitment of military force to the region is changing fast; when that happens – as it has in Europe, for example, since the Cold War’s end – the distribution of military assets tends to change as well.