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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab World (Part I)

Why is it in the United States’ interest to fundamentally re-evaluate its engagement with the Arab world?

August 20, 2007

Why is it in the United States' interest to fundamentally re-evaluate its engagement with the Arab world?

The United States’ relationship with Arabs and Islam has grown from a minor concern 60 years ago to become, by stages leading to 9/11, a national obsession.

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab World
by Chas W. Freeman
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

For most of this period, the majority of Americans didn’t pay much attention to Arabs except when the price of gas went up or the Israelis bombed them or some Arab bombed Israel back.

Now our involvement in the Arab world is direct, continuous, expensive, overwhelmingly military, traumatic, politically divisive, highly problematic — and sometimes fatal.

We are stuck in what the Bush Administration briefly named “the long war.” This is a war with an enemy we are having trouble identifying and whom we clearly don’t understand. It promises to be long indeed, both because we don’t know how to win it and because we will never admit that we may be losing it.

U.S.-Arab relations have become a tough subject to speak about. Since 9/11, the Arabs and we have worked hard to vilify each other. Each side has succeeded in blackening the reputation of the other.

As if the resulting negative political overtones were not enough, the U.S.-Arab relationship is also an exceptionally complex one. This is not just because, while the United States is a single nation-state that acts with a single will, the Arabs are a “nation” of 23 politically diverse states that often compete with each other and only rarely unite.

Americans and Arabs are also each part of complex larger groupings of people with similar values: In our case, the 850-million-strong community we call “the West” — in theirs, the 1.4 billion Muslims who define the realm of Islam.

We need the oil and gas that the Arabs sell. They need the goods and services that we produce. We are in the main a devout and hospitable people. The Arabs are, if anything, even more so. We are roughly equal in numbers.

Like us, Arabs come in all shapes, sizes and skin and hair colors. We are each united not by our ethnicity but by the common languages and cultures that mark us as members of great nations that occupy wide swaths of the globe.

Americans, like Arabs, have a predominant religion. But both of us harbor substantial minorities who profess other Abrahamic faiths. Just as most Americans are Christians but some are Jews or Muslims, most Arabs are Muslims but many are Christians and some are Jews.

With so much in common, we should be friends. For much of the brief history of our relationship, we have been. No more. Anyone who cares about and follows U.S.-Arab relations knows that they are now the worst they have ever been. Well, so what? Does it really matter?

In foreign policy, national interest is the measure of all things. The United States has important interests in West Asia and North Africa that ensure that our relations with the Arabs can have very large consequences for us.

These interests don’t go away in response to events or shifting perceptions or changes of administration in Washington. Let me enumerate six things that are, and will remain, at stake in our relations with the Arabs.

First, let’s face it. We are energy junkies.

Once the world’s biggest oil exporter, we are now its biggest oil and gas importer. We complain a lot about the price of oil. But in practice, we seem willing to pay whatever price is on the pump to be able to drive to our homes and shopping malls in the suburbs rather than walk or take public transport around our cities.

We depend on the global oil market for imports that meet two-thirds of our demand for petroleum products. In turn, the global oil market depends, to a great and growing extent, on Arab oil. The Arabs now supply one-fourth of the world’s oil — and in a decade, they will supply one-third.

Switching from oil to gas is not a work-around. Arab countries already produce 35% of the world’s traded gas. This percentage is set to double in the coming years. Arab countries hold 60% of the world’s oil reserves.

The world, including the United States, is destined to become steadily more dependent on them for its energy supplies, not less.

This gives the world an interest (as energy gluttons, we in the United States have a particular interest) in expanded Arab oil production and exports to meet our energy needs, as well as those of large new consumers like China and India. That, in turn, gives us an interest in peace and stability in the Arab world.

Consider, for example, the effects of the anarchy we have created in Iraq. Before our invasion, Iraq was a reliable supplier to the United States and other markets, with good prospects for expanding exports over time.

The fact that occupied Iraq is now an erratic supplier with very uncertain prospects is one of the reasons that the price of oil has risen to current levels.

In addition to an interest in access to expanded Arab production of oil and gas, we have an obvious stake in avoiding disruption of their sales of these vital commodities abroad.

While other interests may, on occasion, outweigh concerns about the general welfare of our country, it is clearly prudent to try to reduce the dangers of war in West Asia, and thereby to preclude a repeat of the sort of confrontation and resulting energy crisis that occurred during the Egyptian-Israeli war of 1973.

Then, the sudden requirement to shore up Israel’s war-making capacity provoked a retaliatory Arab oil embargo. That hit us hard, even though our economy was then only about half as dependent on imports as it is now.