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Securing the Persian Gulf: With fiscal limits and 'pivot' to Asia, U.S. strategy could change

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By Brian M Downing

The Persian Gulf has been critical in U.S. strategic thinking since the rise of oil production there in the 1930s. Three things, however, are calling its importance into question.

First, U.S. oil and gas production, owing to the exploitation of shale formations inside the U.S., has risen markedly, making self-sufficiency a possibility in only twenty years.

Second, fiscal problems are only beginning to come to the fore, which may force sizable defense cuts.

Third, U.S. interests, in an effort to contain China, are shifting toward East and Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, there will not be as much shifting away from the Persian Gulf as might be expected – or hoped.

Chinese forces in the Gulf of Aden

The U.S. commitment to Gulf security has never been based on the country’s reliance on oil imports. It was based on the post-WW2 commitment to managing the affairs of the world and most crucially, halting Soviet expansion.

The U.S. was still exporting oil in the decade after 1945 but it wanted Western Europe’s recovery to come from foreign sources, not U.S. tracks which had been overworked in the world war.  The free flow of oil out of Iran and Saudi Arabia was deemed vital to those ends. U.S. oil imports, when they emerged in the mid-to-late fifties, came more from the Americas and West Africa than from the Gulf.

The importance of Iran will almost certainly change in coming decades, but other regional issues will persist and emerge. The emergence of representative government in Iran will not necessarily bring peace, only a new round in an old rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. will seek to temper.  Furthermore, the petro-monarchies are facing growing demands for representative government and rising sectarian conflict as well, and many such principalities will find themselves with insufficient revenues to lavish upon heretofore quiescent subjects.

The U.S. will maintain a presence to keep a measure of stability, though the task will be demanding, thankless, burdensome, and filled with unseen consequences. It might also be impossible, but that rarely daunts strategic planners.

The ongoing strategic “pivot” to East Asia will nonetheless keep the Gulf high in U.S. plans.

Recent U.S. actions have paradoxically strengthened China’s position in the Gulf. Ousting Saddam in 2003 led to a Shia majority which allotted generous portions of Iraq’s oil licenses to Chinese concerns, probably upon Iranian requests.  This will lead to a sizable and growing Chinese presence for a generation or more.

Further, China is buying oil and gas from other Gulf states, including Iran, and building up infrastructure in the region, including a pipeline connecting Saudi fields with the Red Sea port of Yanbu, from which Saudi oil will flow without going through the troubled Strait of Hormuz.

The U.S. and allies in East and Southeast Asia are establishing naval “choke points” along the long sea lanes stretching from China’s port cities to the Persian Gulf. China’s economy now depends on Gulf oil more than the U.S.’s ever did and aggressive moves along China’s periphery run the risk of endangering distant oil sources.

China is of course rapidly expanding its navy to secure these sea lanes but it is unlikely to match the combined resources of the U.S., India, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, all of which have been put on guard by China’s recent assertions of territoriality.

Saudi Arabia is taking measures to keep the Gulf in U.S. strategic considerations.  Saudi Aramco and Royal Dutch Shell operate three refineries and 8900 gasoline stations, mostly in the East and Southeast, which ensure a U.S. market share for Saudi crude – irrespective of U.S. production.  Any disruption of Saudi exports to the U.S. will lead to shortages and soaring prices.

American presidents, ever mindful of the effect of gasoline prices on public opinion, will keep Saudi Arabia in its strategic calculus.  Alternately, they can take the nettlesome step of ending Saudi imports altogether someday.

Regardless of U.S. intentions, a protracted and sizable presence in the Persian Gulf will present problems, some of them foreseeable, others of the unpredictable nature that inevitably arise.  The presence of U.S. forces in and around a country can often be the cause of resentments, misunderstandings, and hostile actions, as the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia ably demonstrated not long ago.

In many countries, the U.S. presence serves as guarantor of royal authority and Sunni supremacy over Shia majorities.  U.S. strategic planners would do well to ponders these matters as the domestic oil boom presents strategic and fiscal opportunities and the presence in the Gulf persists beyond economic or national security needs.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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