President Obama talks to bipartisan congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room while discussing a military response to Syria. Reuters/Larry Downing
Plans for a US-led air and missile attack appear to be on hold, pending the outcome of a diplomatic drive to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under international supervision. But the debate over using military force to achieve US objectives continues. Even if President Bashar al-Assad agrees to demands for the swift destruction of his chemical arsenal under international supervision, the White House will insist on its prerogative to employ force in the event of cheating or backsliding by the Syrians. Why this insistence on retaining the option of attacking Syria, despite growing opposition to such action in Congress and the general public?
Supposedly, the purpose of an attack will be to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons against its citizens while “degrading” its future capacity to do so. But, as in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, those who favor military action are also offering up a variety of other reasons: to enhance America’s “credibility” as a major world power; to provide reassurance to American allies in the region; to assist the anti-Assad forces within Syria; and more. Similar justifications were used for the US assault on Iraq. And, just as was true in 2003, a deeper, less acknowledged impulse is driving the United States to war: a perceived need to protect America’s geopolitical interests in the Middle East.
Throughout history, states and empires have sought to enhance their wealth, power and influence by reshaping the world order to better serve their interests—by acquiring colonies, forging alliances with friendly states, constraining the power of their rivals, and so on. Typically, this drive has united political-military and economic motives: a perceived need to bolster the nation’s strategic position in juxtaposition to that of competing states, along with a desire to acquire and protect valuable overseas assets. Much of what we call “history”—the rise and fall of the great powers, imperial conquest and expansion, wars and rebellions—can be attributed to this combination of geopolitical objectives.
For the United States, the irresistible pull of geopolitics has been most evident in Washington’s approach to the Middle East—or, to be more precise, the oil-producing areas of the Persian Gulf. Until World War II, Washington paid almost no attention to this region, viewing it as a strategic backwater. Once oil was discovered, however, it became an area of fundamental interest. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited there in 1945 to meet with the Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, and forge an alliance under which the United States would guarantee the kingdom’s safety in return for privileged access to its vast oil reserves. Every American president since Roosevelt has reaffirmed this relationship, and most have also pledged wholesale deliveries of arms and military hardware.
For a time, the United States was content to share responsibility for maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf area with Great Britain, long the region’s imperial overlord. However, when the British announced in 1968 that they would be removing their forces from the Gulf by the end of 1971, American leaders determined that the United States would have to assume the British role as ultimate guarantor of the gulf’s oil exports. Initially, these officials hoped to enlist Iran—then ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi—as a junior partner in this endeavor, but when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, they concluded that America would have to go it alone.
Since 1979, US policy toward the Gulf area has largely been driven by an overarching strategic precept: the United States must bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety of oil exports from the Persian Gulf to the US and its allies, and, to that end, take whatever action is considered necessary to prevent other powers from endangering that flow. This was the impetus for US intervention in the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm, 1990–91) and the subsequent drive to eliminate Saddam Hussein—at first through economic warfare, later by direct intervention.
America’s geopolitical mission in the Middle East has come at a high price: two costly and demoralizing wars, massive human tragedy, and a decline in this country’s overseas prestige and influence. In recognition of these losses, the Obama administration has sought to forge a new strategic blueprint for America—one that places greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region and less on the Middle East. This shift—what Obama calls the “pivot” to Asia—has been driven in part by growing anxiety over China’s rise and partly by a rise in domestic US oil output, allowing a reduction in America’s dependence on imports from the Middle East.