US Oil Boom Scrambles Mideast Calculus

U.S. Oil Boom Scrambles Mideast Calculus

Syria's civil war increasingly threatens to metastasize into a regional conflict, as Hezbollah fighters join the battle on the side of Syria's government, prompting the Syrian opposition to return fire directly into Hezbollah's home base in Lebanon. Calls for the U.S. to get involved persist. 

Meanwhile, another interesting news development looms. Government projections show that in September, for the first time in almost two decades, the U.S. will produce more oil than it imports. Nor will that be a fluke; the trend is expected to continue, and domestic oil production is expected to outstrip imports by an increasingly wide margin throughout 2014. 

These two developments may seem unrelated, but they are not. The worsening situation in Syria raises the question of whether the U.S. will feel compelled to do something militarily to help end the rule of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, though, declining U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil raises the question of whether Americans will find it ever harder to see the point of getting involved in that messy region. 

Syria itself is an exceedingly marginal oil producer, so its direct role in the energy picture isn't an issue in calculating America's interests there. 

But for four decades, a broader calculus has been at work: Americans' crying need for Arab oil meant it had to be constantly involved in the quest for stability and influence throughout the Middle East. The U.S. thirst for imported oil meant it needed allies and influence in the region, whether that meant billions of dollars in aid to friendly Arab countries, or a constant search to broker a deal for the Palestinian independence that Arabs demanded, or a military presence somewhere, anywhere. 

It would be shorted-sighted in the extreme to think these imperatives are simply vanishing because of a shift in oil production. The dream of complete American energy independence remains "illusory for the time being," notes Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations who now is a vice president at the Wilson Center. 

More importantly, Mr. Miller adds that "we'll always have a vital interest in energy security. That is to say, given that oil is sold, or not, in one [global] market, we still have a stake in ensuring no disruption, and that our allies in Europe and Japan have access, and that no hostile power controls this resource." 

Beyond that, of course, the U.S. has a profound interest in ensuring that failed states in the region don't become incubators of Islamic terrorism, and in preventing a globe-rattling surge of nuclear proliferation that could be set off if Iran produces a nuclear weapon. 

In short, bugging out of the region's problems shouldn't be considered an option. Still, there's no disputing that engagement is going to be a tougher sell, one requiring domestic as much as international leadership out of Washington. 

Americans already are feeling war weariness because of the decadelong military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. There seems little doubt that the march closer to energy independence -- brought on by the oil fracking revolution and the related discovery of giant and reachable domestic natural-gas reserves -- has only begun to affect the American psyche. 

That's true because the magnitude of the change is only starting to sink in. As oil analyst Daniel Yergin has pointed out, U.S. oil production is up 43% since 2008 -- a daily increase that is nearly equal to all of Nigeria's oil production. 

Is that affecting President Barack Obama's decision-making on Syria? There's no direct evidence of that. Mr. Obama offers other plausible reasons for his reluctance to get involved, principally the fear that even a small American intervention ultimately could require a much larger commitment to ensure Mr. Assad's departure -- and that once the U.S. is involved in breaking down Syria, it will assume principal responsibility for the arduous task of putting the pieces back together again. 

Still, Middle Eastern leaders, never noteworthy for their broad vision or foresight, would be wise to take note of the way the political landscape could change as the energy component of that landscape is altered. They can no longer assume that Washington can be easily lured, or simply blackmailed, into helping fix the region's messes. For decades, dependence on foreign energy went a long way toward holding at bay the American public's traditional isolationist tendencies; there's no guarantee that will continue. 

At the same time, America's leaders assume some new obligations of their own. They will need to better explain why the U.S. can't afford to simply exit the region's affairs. "We need the oil" won't be a sufficient rationale any longer. But there are other, less obvious reasons -- principally terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the overall health of the oil-fueled global economy -- for America to remain engaged.


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