Is the Middle East still important? This is a seemingly absurd question, yet some are asking this in Washington. The Middle East is the source of massive reserves in oil and gas. Much of the fuel to produce goods and trade from Asia and the EU comes from the Middle East. Much of the world economy relies on Middle East energy. The region has strategic chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz, The Suez Canal, and The Bab al Mandab. It is a source of some of the more significant threats in the world, such as from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other groups. It contains some of the most important security connections in the world. Consider the neighbors of the Middle East and not just the Middle East. The Middle East is a crossroads for energy and security. It also could be one of the generators of change and improvement, if it is allowed and supported to do so. However, as the U.S. becomes more focused on “The Great Powers Conflict” in Asia, especially with China, it is becoming clearer that the U.S. is losing the plot in the Middle East. Consider the slow to no reaction to the shipping of Iranian fuel with the help of Hezbollah and Syria to Lebanon.
The U.S. could have done many different things to help the Lebanese with this without handing a massive public relations and political victory to its adversaries. But, in some ways, Washington’s sanctions have painted it into a corner on such issues. Consider how the U.S. took the anti-missile batteries from Saudi Arabia as the Houthis are still attacking Saudi Arabia with missiles. The Saudis made a deal with the Russians in response to this and other moves by the U.S. The U.S. handed leverage to the Russians. These are just two of many examples of how the plot is being lost.
Indeed, China is a threat in the Pacific to Taiwan and others. It is a threat to the freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific. It is an economic and technological threat to the US and has been for a very long time. It is a cyber threat to the US. It is developing leverage in many countries with its Belt and Road Initiative. It is now the largest trading partner with almost all Middle East countries. It is building significant diplomatic, economic, and even military leverage in the Middle East. China is moving into the region as the U.S. moves in other directions. By the way, it is getting more likely that China could have a piece of the nuclear power pie in Saudi Arabia.
Russia has also been creating greater leverage in the region. Its recent big defense deals with Saudi Arabia are examples. The U.S. basically opened the door to them. Similar things happened when the U.S. cut back on defense aid to Egypt a few years back. The Egyptians were in Moscow in quick order to make defense and other deals. Russian advisors are back in Egypt. The Russians are building a huge nuclear power complex on the north coast of Egypt. There is no doubt that the Russians have far more clout and leverage in the region than before. Much of this is due to missteps by the U.S. or simply U.S. neglect of this vital region.
The U.S. should be in the running on nuclear power plant exports and other crucial leverage-giving exports in the region. We could export small modular rectors to the region. These have much lower proliferation and safety risks than older, larger plants. We could further develop the safety of this trade by applying 123 agreements as we did in the UAE. The UAE has the gold standard nuclear power agreement with the US even though the plants were built by a Korean company.
Why am I mentioning nuclear power plants? Because whoever exports a nuclear power plant to another country can develop 80 to 100 years of leverage and clout in that country. Nuclear power plant exports are dominated by Russia with China second. The U.S. is not even in the running.
We have seen above some examples of how the Russians and Chinese are building leverage and clout in the region. If the U.S. wants to turn more to the “Great Powers Conflict”, then it should realize that the “Great Powers Conflict” is not just in Asia, but also in the Middle East (and Asia begins in the Sinai). The Middle East is a contested space.
One cannot win a backgammon and chess game by letting the other sides, one’s adversaries, make clever moves while we do not have good counter moves and we do not think many moves ahead.
The U.S. seems to be losing the plot of the 4D chess game in the Middle East. It is not too late to rethink strategies. The U.S. needs to be in the game for the long run and think in the long run. The U.S. needs to regain the plot in the region and how it connects with the big pictures in geopolitics, geo-economics, energy, security, and much more. It is not too late.
By Paul Sullivan for Oilprice.com
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