The Saudi Oil Attacks Reveal the Flaws in America’s Middle East Strategy

World Politics Review, 18.09.2019
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe

It’s still too early to say who is responsible for the attack Saturday on two Saudi oil facilities, or what the U.S. response to the incident will be. President Donald Trump and his administration have so far offered mixed messages on both the attribution of the attack, apparently launched with drones and cruise missiles, and possible repercussions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and intelligence officials have pinned the blame directly on Iran, although so far both the satellite imagery they have provided to the media and the available open source information on the attack are inconclusive. Trump himself first described the U.S. as being “locked and loaded,” suggesting a military riposte was imminent, before subsequently stating he still hoped to avoid a conflict with Iran.

The attack and the reaction in Washington are already instructive, however, for what they reveal about both the fundamental flaws of the current U.S. posture in the Middle East and beyond, and the difficulties a U.S. president will face in trying to walk that posture back to one based on restraint.

The attack on the facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq in eastern Saudi Arabia is certainly a major development on any number of fronts. It resulted in the largest disruption of the global oil market ever recorded, removing 5.7 million barrels per day, or more than 6 percent of global production, from circulation. The Houthis in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, but given the precision and range required to successfully target the facilities from Yemen, that strains credulity. If the Iranians are directly or indirectly responsible, as seems most plausible, it represents a major escalation in Tehran’s campaign of imposing costs on the U.S. and its regional partners for Trump’s decision to reimpose crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil sector.

Trump now finds himself in a predicament that was both predictable and predicted: Far from capitulating to his demands in the face of reimposed sanctions, Tehran has chosen to call his bluff. Although it is a mess of his own making, some of Trump’s unforced errors are also the logical outcome of flaws in America’s broader approach to its role in the world.

First and foremost is the tendency toward threat inflation. Setting aside debates over whether the world has become more dangerous (it hasn’t) and whether the challenge posed by great power rivals like Russia and China should take precedence over second-order rivals like Iran (it should), Washington has consistently exaggerated the threat represented by Iran to both U.S. interests and the Middle East’s balance of power.

As the current regional landscape demonstrates—with indecisive conflict in Yemen, the long slog of Syria’s civil war and seemingly never-ending political stalemate in Lebanon—Iran is in no position to dominate the Middle East. By the same token, no realistic political roadmap for the region can simply ignore Tehran’s interests, and legitimately so. Iran is more a nuisance to be managed than a threat to be defeated. Unfortunately, former President Barack Obama’s halting steps toward recalibrating America’s Middle East strategy along these lines proved unsustainable in the face of concerted resistance by Israel, Saudi Arabia and their advocates in Congress. Iran is not the only example of this tendency in Washington to paint rivals as existential threats to either regional security or the international order, but it is perhaps the most flagrant.

A second flaw that the Saudi oil attack highlights is Washington’s increasing reliance on economic sanctions as the fallback instrument of American coercive diplomacy. In one sense, the use of sanctions is a step in the right direction, in that it is an effort toward achieving preferred outcomes without using military tools. The problem is that, because of the hegemonic power of the dollar in the global economy, U.S. sanctions become indistinguishable from an act of war when applied as broadly as those against Iran. Rather than a boycott, they become the modern equivalent of a blockade, which is in fact defined and regulated under international law as an act of war. Worse still, as the current standoff with Iran shows, sanctions often fail to achieve their objectives, making them more punitive than coercive. Instead of deterring problematic behavior, they incentivize the sanctioned state to seek asymmetric means of applying counterpressure. This weaponization of the dollar will over time undermine its international credibility as the global reserve currency. In the meantime, sanctions serve as a false reassurance in Washington that open conflict is being avoided, when it is in fact only being postponed or repackaged.

Third, the reaction in Washington to the attack illustrates the moral hazard that America’s security guarantees create among its allies and partners. In his initial comments on Twitter, Trump seemed to go so far as to outsource the decision on the U.S. response to the Saudis. Michael Morrell, a former acting director of the CIA, suggested that the U.S. would “need to respond” to what he described as an act of war, despite there being no mutual defense treaty between the two countries. So far, the Saudis have been more circumspect about both attributing responsibility for the attack and their preferred response to it.

Riyadh—which, as the old saw goes, has long been willing to fight Iran to the last American soldier—in fact has plenty of reasons to be cautious about leaping headlong into a conflict that would likely leave the Saudi economy aflame, to say nothing of the regional and global economy. But if the Saudis ultimately agree that the attack warrants a military response, it raises the question of why the U.S., and not the Saudis, should deliver the blow. The reason is that, despite spending tens of billions of dollars on big-ticket American and European weapons systems, the Saudis have no real independent capability to do so effectively. A better place to start would be shoring up their ability to defend their oil infrastructure from future attacks.

At the same time, Saturday’s attack also illustrates the challenges facing any effort to move the U.S. to a posture of restraint, particularly in the transition period necessary for effecting such a radical shift. Trump had recently been signaling his willingness to seek a diplomatic off-ramp from the current standoff with Iran. It will now be difficult for him to follow through, meaning that the status quo of gradual escalation will remain in place, increasing the likelihood that future incidents in the Gulf will further raise the pressure on Trump to respond.

That pressure will be hard to resist so long as the U.S. maintains the military capabilities to intervene anywhere on earth. Reassuring partners and allies, restoring deterrence and demonstrating the willingness to use military force all become ends in and of themselves, regardless of the prospects for successfully achieving America’s strategic and political objectives.

To those in Washington pushing for a U.S. reaction, advocates of restraint would to the contrary declare: Don’t just do something, stand there! But for the foreseeable future, that will remain easier said than done for an American president.

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