U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a rare voice of sanity and realism, told reporters recently that buck-passing the world’s security burden onto America (and Britain, while we are at it) should be a thing of the past. Other great powers that are more interested in preserving their oil and trade routes should play a more active part in securing those routes, he said, with their own blood and treasure.
While freedom of navigation and trade in the global commons is the primary task of the U.S. Navy ever since the United States took superpower status from the Royal Navy post-1945, the situation is changing as unipolarity is coming to an end.
“We have maintained across the sea lanes of the world a position of defending freedom of navigation,” Selva said, but “that doesn’t mean it’s a US-only problem. If we take this on as a US-only responsibility, nations that benefit from that movement of oil through the Persian Gulf are bearing little or no responsibility for the economic benefit they gain from the movement of that oil.”
This should be obvious to anyone who follows geopolitics in the Gulf region, especially to the armchair commentators and politicians who are trying to portray this as a challenge Ronald Reagan faced in the 1980s. Then the Iran-Iraq war was ongoing, amid the threat of Soviets capitalizing on the chaos and choking Western energy routes. The simple reality is that this is not the 1980s.
As Selva added, “If you think back to the reflagging operation, the Tanker War as it was nicknamed, where we reflagged and escorted tankers so that they could flow in and out of the Strait of Hormuz, we got a substantial amount of our oil from the Persian Gulf…We are now in a position where the bulk of that oil goes to … countries in Asia, and none of those countries have shown any predilection to pressing Iran to stop what they are doing. What was true in the 1980s, is not true today. We are not wholly dependent on the movement of Saudi, Kuwaiti Qatari and Emirati oil in and out of the Gulf to sustain our economy.”
Everyone with an ounce of brains can guess that. Tucker Carlson is apparently personally advising the president against a new war in the Middle East, and good for him. But the broader questions are not being answered.
What is the purpose of another intervention in the Middle East, when all the focus should be on China? American intelligence reports suggest Iranian aggression is a typical lashing out in what might be perceived as a siege mentality. While engaged in a desperate proxy war with Saudi Arabia over influence in the Middle East, Iran poses no direct strategic threat to the United States. So far they have not touched any American strategic assets, and the official American red-line for action is American lives lost.
Bret Stephens, for example, cavalierly states that he doesn’t “want a war” but also that the United States should just sink Iranian ships. How does he think wars start? For what purpose would we do this? To what end? Stephens might think that this is the 19th century and Iranians are like the Barbary pirates who would just take a bombardment from an Anglo-Dutch fleet, but the reality is different.
While Iran is a minnow compared to the United States, it is fully capable of making life miserable for U.S. interests in the region, including troops. The fallacy of an analysis that doesn’t consider the opponent’s action is the exact reason we have been in so many never-ending and costly globalist policing missions in the last 20 years.
Consider the reality. Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in a proxy war across the Middle East. But it is not a Western fight, and there is no Western interest other than selling weapons, preferably to both. American oil dependency is at an all-time low, and major oil importers are other great powers with large navies like India and China, powers whose navies are completely capable of securing supply lines, and are at present busy in similar operations such as against pirates on the Somalian coasts.
Research consistently shows that the Western dependence on Gulf oil supplies is minimal, due to the domestic gas revolution and the demise of the threat from Moscow post-Cold War. Regardless of how rogue an actor Iran is, does anyone think it is even logical that Iran would mine the entire Strait of Hormuz to cut off its own crude oil supply, the majority of which goes to China and India, which are essentially the lifeline of Iranian survival?
It defies history, and nation-state behavior. Autocratic and revolutionary states, unlike liberal-democratic states, care about their system’s survival far more, and try and minimize risks of getting into a war with major powers unless pushed to the wall. Even sclerotic Soviet leaders wanted their creaking system to survive in the dying days of the 1980s.
A recent statement from Defense Priorities categorically states the same: “The failure of ‘maximum pressure’ should not be used to justify an unauthorized, preventive war. There is no ‘limited strike’ option for Iran, and another prolonged Middle East war would further harm U.S. security and prosperity.”
In short, whatever Stephens or David Brooks gins up in feverish fantasies, any strike against Iran wouldn’t just stay quiet with “sinking of the Iranian Navy,” whatever in God’s name that means. It would spiral out and result in another open-ended conflict, and an inevitable push for nation building. At a time the military priority should be China, nation building and human rights promotions in the Gulf are a luxury only newspaper pundits sitting in cushy DC offices care about.
Interestingly, it appears Trump understands that and has read the briefings. While one cannot attribute any coherent political idea to him, he is instinctively a restrainer on foreign policy. Trump understands that China is the biggest threat, and that promoting human rights in feudal lands with U.S. lives and dollars don’t serve U.S. interests in any discernible way, and that the United States doesn’t need Arab and Persian energy resources.
Speaking to TIME, Trump argued that the Gulf of Oman is less strategically important for the United States now than it used to be, citing China and Japan as nations that still rely on the region for significant proportions of their oil. ‘Other places get such vast amounts of oil there,’ Trump said. ‘We get very little. We have made tremendous progress in the last two and a half years in energy. And when the pipelines get built, we’re now an exporter of energy. So we’re not in the position that we used to be in in the Middle East where … some people would say we were there for the oil.’
As Tom Rogan and my colleague Curt Mills discussed a few days back, Trump seems to be a personal check on some of his administration’s hawkish proponents. After all, he won an election protesting against stupid Middle Eastern wars. The last thing he needs is another one.
That’s a change from the last two decades, and for the good. Trump needs a team more aligned with his Nixonian instincts. This is the time for conservative foreign policy realists to flock in, get out of the Middle East, and put the gun-sight firmly on China.