International Policy Digest

Olympia O. McCoy/U.S. Navy
World News /25 Aug 2020
08.25.20

It is Time for the U.S. Military to Leave the Middle East

At the end of the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt stopped off to talk with Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud on his way home from the Yalta Conference. The two leaders met on board the USS Quincy at the Great Bitter Lake on February 14, 1945. FDR’s primary goal in meeting with Ibn Saud was to assure the United States of a steady and secure supply of oil for the American economy and for the U.S. military.

The meeting was held in secrecy, as both the United States and Great Britain were jockeying for influence to exploit the Saudi oil fields that had been discovered by two American oil companies working together. The British were attempting to get the inside track in developing this field, but Roosevelt beat them to it.

Up until the oil embargo of 1973, Saudi Arabia guaranteed the United States access to Saudi oil, with the United States providing military security to the Saudi’s. The United States and Europe became addicted to oil from the Middle East because of this. However, the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arab states changed this paradigm, and to protest the United States’ support of Israel, Saudi Arabia led the boycott of oil exports to the United States.

By 1969, oil production in the United States could not keep up with the demand for oil, and the United States became further dependent on oil from the Middle East. In 1973 imported oil in the United States accounted for 30 percent of oil consumed in the U.S. Four years later, in 1977, imported oil accounted for 50 percent of oil consumed in the United States. With its increasing dependence on imported oil, especially from the Middle East, the United States devoted many resources to keeping the oil flowing from the Middle East to the U.S. and to its allies in Europe.

The 1973 oil embargo was led by Saudi Arabia as part of OPEC. It would not be until the oil boycott in response to the support of the United States in the Yom Kippur War that OPEC was able to exert its strength and take firm control of regulating the output of oil, but of also controlling the price of a barrel of oil. Between October of 1973 and April of 1974, a barrel of oil increased from $3 a barrel to $12 a barrel. Since the first oil crisis, there have been several others, the 1979 oil crisis due to the Iranian Revolution, and the tremendous spike in oil prices in 2008. The dramatic rise of a barrel of oil to $147 in 2008 sowed the seeds for the birth of the revolution in shale oil and the reduction of the power of the OPEC countries.

As oil shale drilling in the United States took root, continuous improvements in the techniques of “fracking” made oil competitive at a much lower price than it was before. With the advent of fracking, the U.S. went from 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to 11.2 million barrels a day in 2018. Disinterested in the political events in the Middle East prior to 1945, it was only after the U.S. saw a need for oil from the Middle East that it became involved in the region.

Now that the United States has achieved oil independence, it makes virtually no economic sense to remain involved in the constant political turmoil that engulfs the Middle East. There is no longer a national security interest for involvement. With challenges from China in the Indo-Pacific region, the interests of the United States would be best served by refocusing attention and resources to that region.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet is the main naval component in the Persian Gulf and is based in Bahrain. Because of concern over Iranian behavior, two carrier strike groups (CSG) operate on a semi-permanent basis there. With no overriding national security interest in the flow of oil from the Middle East, the striking power of the carrier strike groups is wasted.

The U.S. Sixth Fleet is the naval component in the Mediterranean and is based in Naples, Italy. Combining the Fifth and Sixth Fleets and deploying them to the Indo-Pacific region would greatly enhance American military power there.

To counter Chinese pressure in the Indo-Pacific region, moving at least one additional carrier group into the Indo-Pacific region would seem to make the most sense. To allow for the security of an additional strike group in the Indo-Pacific region, the United States should approach India and discuss the permanent berthing of a strike group in an Indian port. By establishing a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, China would be forced to expend more naval resources in the area, forcing it to over-extend its already slim resources. The United States could also approach Vietnam to allow for the berthing of the Sixth Fleet in the southern part of Vietnam.

With the United States not having an overriding national security concern in the Middle East, the Mediterranean is a security issue best left to European Mediterranean naval powers. Europe has more than enough naval firepower to impose order in the Mediterranean without the United States. By re-deploying its naval assets from the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific region, the United States not only enhances its own military presence in Asia but serves as a powerful deterrent to aggressive Chinese military behavior.