Sorting out the Middle East

Posted: Aug 16, 2007 12:01 AM
Sorting out the Middle East

If you want to pose as an all-purpose expert on the Middle East, just assume the demeanor of a wise old owl and announce, "It's all about oil." Why did the United States invade Iraq? "Oil." What are the Sunnis and the Shiites battling over? "Oil." What is Iran's motive in its Byzantine power plays? "Oil." Don't try to explain the details of your analysis: Keep it simple, and just blame everything on oil.

The irritating fact is that there is just enough -- barely enough -- truth in this generic accusation to keep it from being laughed out of any room it crops up in. Oil is indeed the central factor in Middle Eastern geopolitics. There exists, under the ground there, a huge percentage of the oil that the world, at this point in its technological development, depends on. Until it was discovered there scarcely a century ago, the residents of the region played a far less important role in world affairs. If technology develops, as it seems likely to, other large sources of energy, the Arabs, who are currently throwing their weight around so brazenly, will have to get back to tending sheep or whatever else they did for money.

Meanwhile, access to the oil resources of the Middle East is absolutely essential to the economic well-being of the rest of the world, and especially Europe's. The United States is far less dependent on it, having alternative sources of oil both within its political borders and in other areas easier to deal with. But the United States could not possibly afford to let Europe be starved of oil, so it cannot ignore the importance of this resource.

On the other hand, there is no serious danger that the oil of the Middle East will suddenly be withheld from the world market. In itself, oil does almost nothing for the nations that sit on top of it. It is useful to them only because, and to the extent that, it can be sold to somebody else. Any interruption in the sale of Middle Eastern oil to Europe would be a terrible blow to Europe, but it would be absolutely catastrophic to the Middle East. The economies of most of the nations there are based almost entirely upon it, and would collapse the moment sales ceased.

So it is nonsense to say or imply that the United States invaded Iraq to insure a continued supply of its oil, or even to get a better price for it. And other Middle Eastern developments are equally independent of any scenario that hinges on the interruption of the oil supply. There are plenty of other reasons for the problems currently bedeviling the region.

Religious differences within the Muslim world are ancient and entrenched, and play an enormous role in their current politics. The Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, for example, have never coexisted affably, and find themselves in the same country only because the borders the British drew when they created that nation after World War I happened to include both of them. This has made it extremely difficult for the United States to bring about an Iraqi government that can truly unite the country.

Similarly, the Shiite-dominated regime in Iran seems clearly embarked on an effort to make sure that their fellow Shiites, who are numerically dominant in Iraq but long suffered under the Sunnis led by Saddam Hussein, control whatever government finally emerges there. And on the other side of Iraq is Syria, which is also led by Shiites and is plainly sympathetic to Iran's game. Arrayed against these forces, however, are the Sunni-dominated governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, among others, who are bound to look more kindly on Iraq's Sunnis.

All this is still further complicated by Iran's evident intention to acquire nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them to nearby targets -- an ambition that the Sunni-led nations are absolutely bound to respond to with nuclear efforts of their own.

No wonder The New York Times reported on Aug. 12 that, despite all their rhetoric about pulling out of Iraq, "the Democratic presidential candidates are setting out positions that could leave the United States engaged in Iraq for years."

That's putting it mildly.