America’s interests: a bedside briefing

I’ve already prepared my briefing for the next president. No point in waiting until he calls me at 3 a.m., which he certainly will. Of course, I could leak it then, but Bob Woodward is already working on his next book, so I might as well leak it now. Here we go.

Thank you for the White House invitation, Mr. President. You don’t know how much I appreciate this appointment as your advisor—my talents were wasting away in that think tank. You’ve asked me to give you a ten-minute briefing on our interests in the Middle East, in a way even a community organizer or small-town mayor or U.S. senator can understand. You’ve asked for an unvarnished telling—no lipstick. No problem. Here’s what you need to know.

The primary U.S. interest in the Middle East is the free flow of energy from beneath its soil to the United States and to our partners elsewhere. The United States is the largest consumer of oil in the world—it consumes a quarter of all world production. We consume twice as much per capita as the other industrialized countries, twelve times as much as the rest of the world. We’re the biggest consumers of energy in the history of humankind. The Middle East is home to 60 percent of the world’s remaining oil; the United States has less than 2 percent. Transferring energy from there to here—and elsewhere to people who depend on us—is our primary interest in the Middle East.

And within the Middle East, Mr. President, the epicenter of our interest is the Persian Gulf. The name “Persian Gulf” is a very old one, you’ll find it on every map. But it might as well be called Lake Michigan, so integral is it to the lubrication of American life. This means that the U.S. must secure the Gulf, and can’t allow any part of it to be dominated by any other power, global or regional.

But in the Middle East there are people as well as oil, and they have more than the usual share of pathologies. A prime U.S. objective, then, has been to isolate the energy flow from those pathologies, by deflecting or combatting or alleviating them.

The preferred way—the American way—had been to find allies among the rulers, and to work with them discreetly, from off-shore and over the horizon. This technique worked for many of your predecessors. The American oil companies ran the oil fields in Saudi Arabia, American advisors assisted the Shah of Iran, arms sales kept clients happy, and there was no need to place an American boot on the ground. Almost every shore of the Gulf was friendly.

But beginning thirty years ago, the Gulf began to heat up. Vast oil wealth began to feed delusions of grandeur and hatred of America, in three forms. Let’s call them, for short, Khomeinism in Iran, Saddamism in Iraq, and Bin Ladenism in Saudi Arabia. Iran’s revolution, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and 9/11, were all Gulf-generated push-back against our primacy. Sometimes they cancelled each other out—as in the Iran-Iraq war—but by 2003, our grip on the Gulf was loosening. We had two of the three big states, Iran and Iraq, under a weak “dual containment,” and the third, Saudi Arabia, was being pressured by jihadists to get us out. When the United States finally invaded Iraq in 2003, we were in search of a foothold. Instead, we almost sank into quicksand. But we’ve pulled ourselves out, and you should be careful not to fritter away our advantage in Iraq. There aren’t many alternative platforms.

Mr. President, our problem in the Gulf remains acute. Oil is a finite resource, demand for it is growing, and we’ll continue to have to expend energy to get energy. Unfortunately, our Gulf allies are really dependencies, and can’t do the fighting for us. In Iraq, we’ve destroyed Saddamism and dealt a blow to Bin Ladenism. But Khomeinism lives, and all those who resent us in the region are rallying to Iran, which promises to succeed where others have failed, by acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The thing to remember about Iran, Mr. President, is that it was once an empire. The classical authors and early European mapmakers called it the “Persian Gulf” for a reason. What we face now is an Iran that’s determined to erode our position in the Gulf, so that we’ll disappear, just as Britain did before us. This is the most formidable of the three challenges we’ve faced in the Gulf. If Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, the Gulf waters will become almost impossible to chart, the oil states (and Israel) will be unnerved, and our primary interest will be at risk. History may not forgive you, so keep all your options on the table.

Mr. President, you ask how much attention should be devoted to Israel and the Palestinians. Once upon a time, it was thought that Israel versus Arabs was the source of all instability in the Middle East. Israel fought against Arab states in every decade, and in 1973, one of those wars actually harmed our primary interest: the Arabs imposed an oil embargo. The United States since then has worked hard, and successfully, to meliorate that conflict. We did it by upping our support for Israel, thus dissuading Arab states from more war, and bringing Egypt and Jordan to make peace with Israel. For the last thirty-five years, there have been no state-to-state wars involving Israel.

True, there have been a couple of Palestinian “uprisings,” and Israel has chased the PLO and Hezbollah across Lebanon. But these skirmishes never rose to a level that would disrupt our primary interest, the energy flow. Fostering an Israeli-Palestinian deal would be a good deed, but its contribution to our overall interests would be marginal, and an attempt to negotiate one would be all-consuming. It could overload your bandwidth, pushing everything else out. In present circumstances, any problem that can be managed without our troops isn’t that urgent. Show interest, but don’t waste time.

Afghanistan is another perpetual crisis that’s resistant to all attempts at resolution. The country itself is of little intrinsic importance, but it does export misery, from drugs to jihadists. Amelioration and containment are probably the best strategies—isolating its pathologies from spreading to Arab countries or Pakistan. But be careful not to portray this as the “good war,” because we won’t ever deploy enough troops to win it decisively, and we can achieve our limited goals short of that anyway.

One last warning, Mr. President. On the edges of the Middle East, we’ve relied heavily on two regimes which have been our most consistent partners in hunting jihadists: Musharraf’s Pakistan and Mubarak’s Egypt. Musharraf is gone, and Mubarak is quite likely to be gone before you leave this office. Pakistan and Egypt aren’t as central to our core interests as the Persian Gulf. But if extremists succeed in taking either, temperatures at the core of the Middle East will rise dramatically. (This will be so even if we disarm Pakistan’s nukes before the country goes under.) It’s difficult to judge the likelihood of such a debacle. But to hedge against the consequences, be prepared to upgrade security ties with Israel and India, which we’ll need to absorb and deflect the shock.

Again, Mr. President, it’s an honor. I know we’ll be seeing a lot of each other. At 3 a.m. Goodnight, sir. Shall I tuck you in?

Martin Kramer made these remarks at a symposium on “After Bush: America’s Agenda in the Middle East,” convened by Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) at Harvard University on September 23.