The Arab Spring has plunged Syria into a bloody civil war. Now, with allegations flying that the Russians are supplying helicopters to the odious regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a familiar debate is underway. Should we intervene?
There can be no morally credible argument against intervention—by someone. Leaving Syria to descend into the kind of sectarian violence that devastated neighboring Lebanon in the 1980s would condemn hundreds of thousands to premature, violent death. Syria is five times the size of Lebanon. The risks of leaving it to degenerate into a failed state are surely higher than the risks of intervention.
But why should it be the United States that once again attempts to play the part of global cop?
Since the early 1970s, the Middle East has absorbed a disproportionate share of American resources. Particularly since 9/11, it has consumed the time of presidents like no other region of the world. Yet it is far from clear that this state of affairs should continue, for three good reasons.
First, advances in fracking technology and discoveries of bountiful natural gas reserves mean that North America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil will diminish rapidly in the next two decades. In 1990 North America accounted for 29 percent of global liquid fuel consumption (mostly oil). By 2030, according to BP, that figure will be down to 19 percent.
Second, a new military intervention makes very little sense at a time when the U.S. defense budget is being slashed. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the latest National Defense Authorization Act will reduce spending by $554 million between 2013 and 2017.
Finally, what is the point of humanitarian intervention in a region where no good deed goes unpunished? The United States has made its fair share of mistakes in the Middle East, no question. But the things we have gotten right—extricating Egypt from the Soviet embrace, upholding Kuwait’s independence from Iraq, overthrowing the tyrants Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi—haven’t exactly won many plaudits. Back in 2002, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, 30 percent of Turks and 25 percent of Jordanians had a favorable view of the United States. Today those figures are, respectively, 15 percent and 12 percent.
So if not us, then who? Or perhaps that should be: if not us, then Hu? That, after all, is the name of the current Chinese president.
In terms of geopolitics, China today is the world’s supreme free rider. China’s oil consumption has doubled in the past 10 years, while America’s has actually declined. As economist Zhang Jian pointed out in a paper for the Brookings Institution last year, China relies on foreign imports for more than 50 percent of the oil it consumes, and half of this imported oil is from the Middle East. (China’s own reserves account for just 1.2 percent of the global total.)
Moreover, China’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil is set to increase. The International Energy Authority estimates that by 2015 foreign imports will account for between 60 and 70 percent of its total consumption. Most of that imported energy comes through a handful of vital marine bottlenecks: principally, the straits of Hormuz and Malacca and the Suez Canal.
Yet China contributes almost nothing to stability in the oil-producing heartland of the Arabian deserts and barely anything to the free movement of goods through the world’s strategic sea lanes.
True, China’s defense budget is still a fraction—8 percent—of ours. But even the official figures, which are probably underestimates, reveal that it has gone up by a factor of two and a half in the past 10 years. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, China has invested not only in an aircraft carrier and a new combat aircraft, but also in “anti-satellite capacities, anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and cyber-warfare capabilities.”
Finally, the world is ready for the Chinese to participate more fully in international security. According to another Pew survey of 14 nations around the world, 42 percent of people now think China is the world’s leading economic power, compared with 36 percent who think it’s still the United States.
Under President Obama, U.S. grand strategy has been at best incoherent, at worst nonexistent. I can think of no better complement to the president’s recent “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region than to invite China to play a greater role in the Middle East—one that is commensurate with its newfound wealth and growing military capability.