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The Middle East in a post-American world

Dec 19, 2023

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Early in the Cold War, the United States shaped the political landscape of the Middle East. In recent years, Washington’s influence in the region has declined. Amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, two questions emerge: Can the U.S. exert significant influence in the Middle East again, and is it inclined to do so?

In his “post-American” series, Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan continues to opine on the future of the world, this time zeroing in on America’s role in the Middle East.

Excerpted from Peter’s Dec. 19 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

To kick off our “post-American” series, we’ll be looking at the Middle East. The best way to break this down is into three chunks: the role of the U.S. as it leaves, the role of regional powers as they rise, and the role extra-regional powers might play.

The U.S. has been bopping around the Middle East for quite a while now, but why were they there? The U.S. didn’t need the oil, but their friends did…so the U.S. stuck around to keep the allies in the game. But with the U.S. now a net oil exporter, American interest in the region writ large has dwindled. Additionally, the U.S. isn’t looking to help China – the region’s primary export customer – grow, so most of what is keeping the U.S. engaged are just those legacy anti-terror fights.

The U.S. exit strategy will play a role in what regional powers step up…the options are a ditch and run, appointing a successor, or crafting a strategic balance of power that the Americans can manipulate from a distance. Once the U.S. is out, Turkey is the one to watch. The only thing that might keep them from leading the Middle East is being too involved in other regions. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the other two players to keep an eye on (and Israel could play a role, too).

The external powers that could play a role here are quite limited. Outside of the U.S., the only real country that could (and would want to) project power in this area of the world is … Japan. And with the Japanese/American partnership, the U.S. will empower them to do so.

The best part of all this movement and power transition is that the U.S. just doesn’t give a f***.

Access Peter’s other post-American world commentaries:

Hey, Peter Zeihan here for the next in our series of the regional geopolitics in a post American world, we’re going to talk about the Middle East. And as with all of the others, you kind of have to break it into three chunks. First of all, the role of the United States as it leaves, number two, the role of the regional powers as they rise to take actions, and three, the role of whatever extra regional powers might play. So first of all, with the United States, United States has never been involved in the Middle East for oil, or at least not in the way that most people think about it. Throughout most of modern history, the United States has been the world’s largest producer of crude, and especially now with the shale revolution. It’s a net exporter again. But when even when it was importing, it got almost everything that it needed from the Western Hemisphere, with Canada being a large supplier of Venezuela, and Mexico. Even at the height of American energy independence, the vast majority of sourcing was from within North America, with a bit of a kicker from Saudi Arabia.
The reason the United States has traditionally been involved in this region isn’t oil for itself, it’s oil for its allies under the global trading order. So that is your Germany’s that is your France. That is your Italy’s, that is your
China’s and all of the conflicts The United States has been involved had been there to, you know, keep gas in the tank for the global system by really however you define it. So keep that in mind, when you think about United States oil the Middle East, it’s usually in order to empower others. That’s no longer relevant to the United States. Now that the United States is a significant exporter of crude, we see our European allies as either getting crude from us or being on their own same for Japan, which the Japanese have signed on to that quite expeditiously, which means the primary reason for the United States to be involved in a war for oil in the Middle East is now to encourage Chinese growth. And let’s just say that’s not a politically popular position in the United States anymore. So put that to the side. Aside from doing some legacy, anti terror operations in places like Syria, the US really doesn’t have a pressing need in the region anymore. So there’s the United States, let’s talk about the regional powers. The one that matters the most by far is Turkey, its air force, its navy, its army aren’t simply among the largest in the world, they are larger and more capable than that of all of the other powers in the Middle East, combined. And the only reason to expect that the Turks will not dominate this region, as the United States leaves is simply because for the Turks, this is just one theater of operations. They also have stuff that has to deal with the eastern Mediterranean where they’re going to kind of be competing with the French, they also are interested in the caucuses, where there’s some Russian influence, but their primary field of competition is going to be in the eastern Balkans with German German power, and especially Russian power on the other side of that table.
Because of that kind of differentiated, more holistic approach to the region, the Turks are never going to be able to focus completely on places like Iraq. So it’s a place where they have interests, but they’re not able to put their shoulder into it. Now, there are two countries that can put their shoulders into it. And those are the regional powers of Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Now, obviously, the Americans and the Iranians haven’t gotten along since the revolution in 1979. And there doesn’t seem to be any movement on either side of the American political aisle to change that. But one of the things we’ve seen with American foreign policy visa vie Iran, is that we’re trying to find a way to move past the impasse. And the issue is, if you’re going to leave a region, if you don’t want to be involved in regulating the day to day minutia and atrocities that go on, you’ve got to do one of three things. Number one, is just cut and run and never look back, in which case, you will have no influence over what happens. Number two is to appoint a successor. And because the Turks have such varied influence in various places, and because their interests are rising and falling, they were never a good kind of anointed follower, because they’re going to be doing things for their own reasons, which are often not going to line up with American interests. And even if they could focus on the Middle East, you know, there’s always gonna be something in the background competing for their attention. So that leaves Saudi Arabia and Iran, and if you’re going to annoy a successful of Saudi Arabia, you have to somehow get past the point that the Saudi military can really only function in air conditioning. It is arguably one of the best capitalized militaries in the world with some of the most leading edge tech, but they don’t know how to use hardly any of it. So choosing Saudi Arabia successor is really never a viable option. And of course, Iran is on the other side of things. So the remaining strategy is to establish a balance of power that you can kind of manipulate from a distance. And believe it or not, that is what the Iran deal was under the Obama administration was to kind of re elevate Iran so it’s no longer under extreme
sanctions so that Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Iran could all about counterbalance one another. Now I know a lot of people have a lot of opinions about that deal. It was negotiated very badly by a very disinterested president. And so the form that the deal ultimately took, didn’t make a lot of sense. But that was the strategic goal underpinning it than Donald Trump came in and basically blew it all up, but replace it with nothing pushing us towards that just abandon the area completely. And the Biden administration hasn’t shown any interest of really picking up any of the pieces. So we’re kind of by default, going to that option one, which means that all the fun and games that can happen in energy markets, we’re getting fun in game like, oh, I one more thing about the local powers, there is Israel. Now Israel could never be the arbiter of the region, it’s too small. But in a post American situation, the Israelis know that they have to have a very forward looking foreign and security policy, so they don’t get overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And since they know that the Saudis are militarily incompetent, the Israelis have chosen to partner with the Saudis in order to counter Iran. The basic idea is, is that you use Saudi intelligence and money to undermine the Iranians everywhere. And then the Israelis backstop the Saudis with technology with training with their own intelligence with their deep strike capability. It’s a reasonably potent power combination. Okay, that’s them. external powers, very limited. The United States with its navy obviously has the ability to intervene in force if it wants to. But since the war on Iraq was so much fun, you shouldn’t expect the United States to put boots on the ground in any appreciable number within the next decade or two. And beyond that, it’s a very short list of powers that have long range, naval projection capacity, you’ve got the Brits, you’ve got the French and both of them do have footprints in the region. But it’s pretty clear to me that they can’t sustain those footprints without active American assistance. And on the other side, you’ve got the Japanese and the Chinese. Now, the Chinese have made a really good show in recent weeks of being an arbiter, and a peacemaker, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But remember, while the Chinese may have a 600, ship Navy, only about 50 of those ships can sail more than 1000 miles from home. So the only way that China can intervene in the Middle East in any meaningful way, is with active assistance from the US Navy. And that’s not in the cards, which means the power that is most likely to be able to project into the region in a meaningful way, is Japan. And since Japan is now going to be getting more of its energy from Southeast Asia, and especially the western hemisphere, it has a strong role to play as a disrupter to prevent its own foes from ever getting a reliable energies flow from the region ever again. So we are now looking at Japan, more likely than not disrupting things in the Persian Gulf in order to destroy Chinese energy security. So this whole region is going to be delightful and the time to come. And for the Americans, the best part of it is we don’t care.

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