Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Neg. Rebuttal)
Since this is my last entry in the debate, I’d like to thank Bernard Finel for what I think has been an excellent, interesting, and informative debate. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when I was moved to propose this debate: I’ve established that complete disengagement with the Middle East (the resolution of the debate) would be imprudent and Bernard agrees with me:
Engagement and disengagement are not binary values. My call is not for zero presence, but rather for a diminished visibility of our role in the region
That’s not what I drew from Bernard’s article that prompted my suggestion nor is it what I drew from his affirmative case. I still don’t have a clear idea of what Bernard is proposing. I do see that he’s dissatisfied with things as they are, a view I share.
I also believe that he and I agree that we should de-emphasize our military commitment to the Middle East somewhat. Where we appear to differ is in what the nature of our continuing engagement with the Middle East should be.
I’ll now consider some of Bernard’s arguments seriatim.
Let’s dispense with the oil issue first since it’s the easiest. The spreadsheet of oil prices that Bernard produced is highly informative but rather than proving his case it proves mine. Policies aren’t arrived at by averages but by events. The price spike of 1979-1980 was produced by the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East I sketched in my argument. The price spike of 1986 was caused by the so-called Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq War. That each of those was followed by an increase in U. S. military involvement in the Middle cannot mean that they were caused by that involvement although that increased involvement may have had increased hostility to the United States as a secondary effect. I think the message is rather clear: if the states of the Middle East want us to reduce our military engagement
There is currently no way for us to avoid dependence on oil. Even if we produced every single drop of oil that we consumed, since oil is fungible, the Gulf states are major oil producers, and they are the lowest cost producers we would still be dependent on Gulf oil. An oil price shock would affect us under those circumstances as much as it would now. The quantified effects of closing the Straits of Hormuz are estimated to be around $200 billion per year, i.e. more than the cost of the military engagement that Bernard has cited.
There is no alternative to oil at hand and will not be for the foreseeable future. There is no production-ready electric car, there’s no reason to believe that a practical one will be producible in production quantities at a reasonable cost for the foreseeable future, and if neither of those were true we’d still remain dependent on oil for the foreseeable future for two reasons.
It rarely makes discussions of oil independence but even if a production electric car were ready it will take twenty years for us to turn over the complete oil-burning vehicle fleet. That’s a matter of mathematics and economics as well as logistics. 100 million vehicles at $40,000 a pop (on average) cost $4 trillion. If you can produce the batteries in those quantities which nobody knows how to do yet. A price shock in oil would be an economic catastrophe for us for every year of those twenty years.
And even that’s not the whole of it. Our current electrical grid doesn’t have the excess capacity to handle the additional load required to recharge all those electric vehicles, it will take us decades to update our grid, and it will cost trillions more.
But that’s a parochial view. Our investment in stability in the commerce in oil through the Gulf maintains price stability not only for us but for our European and Asian allies and, equally importantly, for every poor country in the world that is far less willing to pay for turning over its vehicle fleet or upgrading its electric grid than we are. Our investment keeps those countries stable and the world at peace.
Terrorism and security interests
There’s little reason to believe that disengagement from the Middle East will result in a reduction of the threat from terrorism. As my good friend Mark Safranski put it, that’s not merely counter-intuitive, it’s lacking in real world evidence. Terrorists have their own intrinsic motivations; they aren’t merely responding to our actions although those may be among the explanations they present for their actions.
The most dangerous, awful anti-American regimes in the world aren’t those with whom we have high levels of engagement, they’re those, like Iran and North Korea, with whom our engagement is very limited.
It isn’t disengagement that will lead to a more positive view of America and Americans but more engagement as the polling data I’ve linked to suggests. Here’s an additional example.
Recent arrests in Belgium have rounded up members of a terrorist ring who apparently were planning an attack in Brussels. Belgium hasn’t been part of the coalition in Iraq and its military involvement in Afghanistan has been nominal. Both its footprint and its fingerprint in the Middle East are quite small. Nonetheless the Belgians are a target for terrorist activities.
Israel doesn’t figure prominently in my own calculus of American interests in the Middle East and I wish that the nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States were somewhat different than it is now. Howsomever it remains that Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East, there is a substantial constituency in the United States that would render major disengagement from Israel politically impossible, and I have little reason to believe that such disengagement would produce more security for us, the Israelis, for the Middle East, or for the world. In particular I don’t see how major disengagement from the Middle East would motivate the Israelis to arrive at a settlement with the Palestinians nor do I see how relinquishing our strongest bargaining chips—our engagement with the Middle East—would strengthen our hand in achieving such a settlement.
Our embassies are massive concrete structures, set back from the road, with triple rings of security barriers. Our businesses operate behind barbed wire and are protected by private security. Americans travel in armed convoys and stay in secluded hotels that also feature fortress-like precautions.
Does that describe Egypt, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates? Or many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa? Perhaps someone better informed than I could comment.
I think that’s a description of Iraq. We can’t undo the harm to our long term interests in the Middle East that our invasion of Iraq has caused. Nor am I prepared to argue that on net the invasion was a good thing.
Over the next several years we’ll be removing something like half of the troops we have in Iraq which I support as the security situation there has clearly improved substantially.
Bernard scoffed at the possibility of trade with the Middle East. Let’s take a single example: Jordan. Currently the European Union does something like $4 billion per year in exports to Jordan. The U. S. does something like $650 million, only about 6% of the total. It certainly looks to me as though there’s a market there and room for improvement on our part. There’s a similar pattern throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Emphasis on trade liberalization and increased trade with the Middle East will not only improve the people who live there’s opinion of us but it will improve their way of life, making them more prosperous and happier. And that in turn will make all of us more secure.
The reason I proposed a debate on the subject was simply because the format of a debate calls for the burden of proof to fall on the affirmative. That’s not a trick; that’s the definition. Debating requires the affirmative to meet the burden of proof. I’m not surprised that Bernard doesn’t much care for the format because the real world evidence points the other way.
In the final analysis it actually appears to me that Bernard and I have many points of agreement: we shouldn’t disengage from the Middle East completely, our military engagement with the region is too great. I see no way to reduce our fingerprint on the region for the foreseeable future and think that our best interests lie in increased engagement. That’s our historical experience and that’s what the opinions of people all over the world support.
We need to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it and the Middle East is no exception to that but the engagement should not be so heavily in the form of military engagement. More butter, fewer guns.