In a provocative and well executed article in the July/August issue of the National Interest, “The Fading Arab Oil Empire,” Paul D. Miller, assistant professor of international-security studies at the National Defense University, argues:
The geostrategic importance of the Middle East is vastly overblown. The region matters to the United States chiefly because of its influence in the world oil market, but that influence has been in terminal decline for a generation, a fact almost wholly unnoticed by outside observers.
He proceeds to make a sensible argument about oil becoming less important and the Middle East losing its comparative advantage at producing oil, concluding from this that:
In two decades or so, the global oil market and the Middle East’s geopolitical influence will be dramatically different from what they are today. … The importance of this development cannot be overstated. It is a tectonic shift in the geopolitical balance of power, a strategically pivotal development only slightly less momentous than the fall of the Soviet Union. It is the slow-motion collapse of the Middle Eastern oil empire.
For him, this implies that Washington
can and should begin to adapt its foreign policy to reflect these realities. It can look with more complacency on the rise and fall of particular regimes across the Middle East and North Africa. . . . The changing realities of the world energy market do not mean the United States can or should ignore the Middle East. Certainly, Israel’s security and Iran’s behavior will keep the region a focus for policy makers’ attention. But, placed in a global perspective, the United States has more or deeper interests at stake in other regions of the world—especially Europe and Asia—than in the Middle East.
This argument is belied by several facts. First, the very cover of the July/August issue of the National Interest, with a tattered flag and a lead essay titled “Requiem for the Two-State Promise: Israel Tightens Its Grip on the Occupied Lands,” negates Miller’s point. Passions about the Arab-Israeli conflict have only remotely to do with oil. The anti-Zionist forces that rallied in Durban in 2001 and the pro-Israel forces that rally each spring at the AIPAC policy conference devote roughly zero percent of their thoughts to oil, gas, or any other hydrocarbons.
Second, Islamism, as the only dynamic utopian and totalitarian ideology extant in the world today, and which largely originates in the Middle East, presents a civilizational danger only somewhat connected to oil (the appeal of Islamism will probably decline along with revenues).
Third, the region, located at the center of the inhabited world, bristles with dangers, including tyranny, violence, WMD, and war. These affect everything from sea-lane security to refugee immigrants to domestic-security arrangements (take a walk around the White House for a vivid demonstration of the latter). Only in the Middle East are whole countries in danger of extinction. Several countries have descended into anarchy, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and Libya.
For these reasons, I doubt that Miller’s advice that U.S. policymakers “look with more complacency on the rise and fall of particular regimes across the Middle East and North Africa” will be listened to anytime soon.