Toby C. Jones writes: The U.S. is finally drawing down its military presence from Iraq, but why stop there? Why not reduce or outright remove our military presence from the entire Persian Gulf? The U.S. has been waging war in the Gulf for more than two and a half decades, since it took up arms against in Iran in the closing stages of the Iran-Iraq war. The human and environmental costs have been catastrophic. The presumptive gains of what has amounted to one long war have proven elusive at best. More often that not, the justifications for war have been either ill-conceived or manufactured. The Persian Gulf today is hardly stable or secure. But permanent war, and our militarization of the Gulf, isn’t so much a reflection of regional instability as it is the cause.
Today, it’s still not clear what the United States’ strategic priorities are in the Gulf. Are we there to secure access to oil? Protect friendly regimes from unfriendly ones? American policymaking is muddled, a combination of concern about energy security, Iranian aggression, and terrorism. This uncertainty is perilous. And the reality is that none of these challenges really require a significant military presence. Indeed, if recent history is any guide, a large military footprint in the Gulf will generate more rather than less risk.
Historically, oil and “energy security” have been at the heart of American strategy in the Gulf. It is home to the richest oil and natural gas deposits on the planet. It was President Jimmy Carter who most clearly made protecting the flow of oil to global markets a national priority. Carter declared oil a “vital interest” and that any assault on it would “be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Protecting oil meant protecting its producers. Indeed, much of the war-fighting of the last two decades has been rationalized as necessary to defend Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and their oil, from neighborhood threats. The economic logic that has underpinned all this is based mostly on an assumption that oil is a scarce resource, that there is a tight gap between supply and demand, that ensuring supply is essential to stabilize prices and to protect the global economy from potentially devastating disruptions.
None of that is really true. For most of the 20th century, oil companies and oil producing states regularly collaborated to regulate supply in order to limit competition and control prices. There never has been a global oil market. Instead, oil’s production and delivery has been managed by a small network of corporate and national energy elites, whose primary concern has been serving their own interests and maintaining their bottom line.