Iran-Saudi Crisis Resurrects an Old Question: Does the U.S. Need to Be There at All?

Trump’s reluctance to retaliate against Iran may reflect his belief that an “energy independent” United States no longer needs to protect the region.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Sailors watch the sunset atop an F/A-18E Super Hornet on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the 5th Fleet area of operations on March 23, 2018.
Sailors watch the sunset atop an F/A-18E Super Hornet on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the 5th Fleet area of operations on March 23, 2018. Seaman Michael A. Colemanberry/Dept. of Defense

The attack last weekend on Saudi oil installations—which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as an “act of war”—has U.S. and Saudi officials scrambling to calibrate a response, dabbling in extra sanctions but leery of unleashing a military strike.

Yet it also raises a question: Must the United States keep spending blood and treasure to protect the oil flows of the Persian Gulf at a time when, as President Donald Trump repeatedly says, the United States is virtually energy independent?

The drone-and-missile attack on a pair of Saudi oil installations, which both Washington and Riyadh blame on Tehran, is part of the broader struggle between the United States and Iran, of course. But as the United States weighs its response, it comes in the context of a seldom-questioned, decades-old U.S. commitment to do whatever it takes to ensure that oil flows freely out of the Persian Gulf.

That commitment dates back to World War II, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that defending Saudi Arabia and its vast supplies of oil was a way to defend the United States. President Harry S. Truman reaffirmed that promise a few years later. But the United States really embraced the mission of protecting Gulf energy supplies in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter announced his doctrine declaring that the United States would protect the Persian Gulf region and its huge reservoirs of oil from outside interference, with military action if necessary.

At the time, such a commitment made sense. The United States alone imported about 2 million barrels a day of Persian Gulf oil in 1980, and important U.S. allies like Europe and Japan were even more reliant on crude flowing from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other countries around the Gulf. It made sense a decade later, when half a million U.S. troops were sent to defend Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And another decade later, when the 9/11 terror attacks (carried out mostly by Saudis) embroiled the United States in two decades of Middle East wars, the country was even more dependent on Persian Gulf oil.

Today, though, the picture has changed dramatically after a decadelong boom in domestic U.S. oil production. The United States currently imports fewer than 1 million barrels of oil a day from the region, less than half the amount it did when Carter swore to protect those flows. Europe, too, has reduced its dependence on Persian Gulf crude. Now, about three of every four barrels of oil that leave the Strait of Hormuz are headed to Asia—mostly to China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

“The Carter Doctrine belonged to the 1970s, when the United States was heavily reliant on Middle East oil,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The question is: Should the doctrine still apply?”

Trump seems to think not. Uniquely among recent U.S. presidents, he has never bought into the idea that the United States has to protect the rest of the world’s oil supplies. This summer, right as Iranian threats to choke off oil exports from the region were spooking oil consumers in Europe and Asia, Trump lit into four decades of Washington consensus.

“Why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation,” he wrote on Twitter. “We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”

Trump has changed his tune little even in the wake of last weekend’s attacks, sowing concern in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region that the United States may not be as willing to back it as it was in the past. Ironically, though, Trump’s broadside against unilateral U.S. responsibility for protecting global energy supplies is close to Carter’s original idea—that protecting Persian Gulf oil flows should be a collective effort, involving every nation that relies on oil from the region.

The main argument for the United States to continue to shoulder a burden that costs an estimated $81 billion a year is essentially twofold. First, ensuring that Persian Gulf oil gets to the market keeps oil prices stable (even in the United States) and helps shore up the global economy. Second, the long-term presence of U.S. forces in the region, experts say, offers the United States intangible benefits.

“That responsibility has costs, but it also has benefits, including helping shape the region in ways that are conducive to U.S. interests,” said Scott Savitz of the Rand Corp.

“If we washed our hands and walked away, it could get very complicated. There are numerous actors seeking greater roles in the region,” he said. “What would Russia do? Would China assume the greater opportunities and risks that come with a greater role in the region?”

Part of the reason the United States still has that job after 40 years is that few other navies can realistically do it. European navies, even the British and the French, can barely muster enough ships for sporadic escort operations. India has revitalized its navy—but is looking more to the east than toward the Persian Gulf. Japan, too, has modernized its navy, but it has constitutional limits on using military power far from home.

That leaves the growing Chinese navy as one of the few viable alternatives to the U.S. presence around the Persian Gulf.

Chinese ships policing the area would seem to answer Trump’s demand for more equitable burden-sharing; China, the world’s biggest oil importer, is the biggest Asian consumer of Persian Gulf oil, getting about 40 percent of its crude from the region.

And over the last decade, China has dramatically increased its ability to operate far from home, especially around the Persian Gulf. For more than 10 years, Chinese ships have taken part in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia. China has snapped up a series of nominally civilian ports ringing the Indian Ocean, potentially giving its navy longer reach. And it has a newfound military base in Djibouti that could give its forces more local staying power.

Still, many naval experts question whether China has the ability, or the political will, to maintain more than a token naval presence in the neighborhood. Even though the Chinese navy has made great strides in overseas operations and has an “impressive capability,” said Lyle Goldstein, an expert on China at the U.S. Naval War College, Beijing is wary of getting sucked into a long-term, distant operation.

“The Chinese view the Middle East as the graveyard of the superpowers. They are not eager to get involved in the Middle East, not at all,” he said.

But to ensure stability in the region, and especially the much-needed flow of oil, Beijing might not need gray hulls as much as greenbacks.

“China has invested in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. China could approach these issues very differently,” said Nasr, of Johns Hopkins. “We encourage divisions. China’s interest in the Middle East is not to encourage an Iran-Saudi standoff; their instinct is to make everybody play ball.”

Of course, while getting China to carry more of the burden for securing its own oil flows would address the president’s concern about free-riders, it would undermine another of his administration’s goals, which is to check rising Chinese geopolitical influence. Giving China a nearly free hand around the Persian Gulf would mean potentially ceding a vital area of U.S. interests to a rival and strategic competitor.

Which is why, even as the United States needs Persian Gulf oil less and less, many security experts think the 40-year-old mission there still makes sense. Instead of just protecting energy flows to stabilize friends, allies, and the global economy, the United States could turn that mission into part of the campaign to counter Beijing.

“China is probably seeking to fortify that whole area, so keeping a U.S. presence there keeps a check on Chinese operations,” said Steven Wills, a former naval officer and surface warfare expert at the CNA think tank. “So, strategically, at least, it’s worth consideration—it’s not just about the flow of oil, it’s also about U.S. strategic goals.”

But successive presidential administrations have sought to escape from the Middle East and put more emphasis on great power rivalry in Asia, especially as China has greatly intensified its bullying of smaller neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines and lays claim to big chunks of the Western Pacific. Given the relatively small size of the current U.S. Navy, reinforcing a military mission in the Middle East would mean fewer hulls to contest China closer to home, Wills said.

“A ship in the Gulf is not in the Western Pacific, so there are trade-offs for the U.S. Navy,” he said.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP