In the 19th century, the United States and Europe thought the Middle East was a hot, exotic backwater. The region was governed by the Ottoman empire, the ‘sick man of Europe’ propped up by competing powers fearful of one another’s ambitions. In the power vacuum left by the fall of the Ottomans, the radical Wahabis of Saudi Arabia and Shias of Iran have flourished. No one would care or even notice the rise of Islamic extremism were it not for the Middle East’s oil.
Two weeks ago, the Iranian backed Kata’aib Hezbollah militia bombarded a coalition base in Iraq, wounding several American soldiers and killing a military contractor. The United States retaliated by bombing Kata’aib Hezbollah positions in the country. On New Year’s Eve, Kata’aib Hezbollah stormed the American embassy in Baghdad. President Trump flew in Marine reinforcements and helicopter gunships, preventing a repeat of the Obama Administration’s Benghazi disaster. Then, on January 3rd, an American drone strike killed General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and mastermind of Iranian operations in Iraq and the Middle East. Iran retaliated by firing several ballistic missiles at two coalition bases in Iraq. No one was hurt in the bombardment, but a jumpy Iranian Surface to Air Missile battery commander mistook a Ukrainian airliner for a US cruise missile and shot it down, killing all of the 176 mostly Iranian passengers aboard. Since then, Iran has been rocked by anti-regime protestors. It was the best week the United States has had in the Middle East in a decade and a bad week for Iran.
Since the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, Iran has been an avowed enemy of the United States. In 1979, Iranian ‘student’ revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held the staff hostage for 444 days. In the 1980s, Iranian proxies kidnapped Americans in Lebanon, Hezbollah blew up the US Marines barracks in Beirut, and Iran attacked US flagged tankers in the Arabian Gulf. In the 2000s, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps supported Shia insurgents in Iraq, inflicting thousands of American (not to mention Iraqi) casualties.
After Trump’s killing of Soleimani, US Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked under what authority do American troops remain in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Of course, the Constitution grants the President sole authority to wage war, and Congress the sole ability to declare war. The line between war and minor military action has been blurred since the very founding of the Republic. Congress has not formally declared war since World War Two. Since then, the United States has gone to war under congressional authorizations of the use of military force. Right now, American troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan under congressional authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002.
The Bush administration promised a quick victory in Iraq, said ‘we’d be welcomed as liberators’ and declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ after toppling Saddam. The subsequent war took five years, cost a trillion dollars, and tens of thousands of lives. Not until The Surge of 2007 did America turn the tide against the various insurgent factions it was battling. The Sunnis switched sides and drove Al Qaida out of Anbar, and the Iraqi government defeated the Iranian backed Shia insurgents in Basra and southern Iraq. Today, Iraq has a constitution with majority rule but minority rights, regular elections, and a peaceful transfer of power between leaders. But, after the Obama Administration withdrew American troops from Iraq, Iran greatly expanded its influence in the Middle East. Iran wages a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, helped Assad fight anti-regime elements and ISIS in Syria, and built Hezbollah into a formidable political and military force in Lebanon.
Iran has replaced the United States as the most important foreign power in Iraq. The Mullah’s aggressive military and diplomatic moves as well as its pursuit of nuclear weapons, have pushed the Gulf States and Israel into a quasi-secret alliance. In any war with the Mullahs of Iran, the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia can count on support from the Jews of Israel. It seems the Middle East no longer needs America.
America was once reliant upon Middle Eastern Oil. OPEC oil boycotts of the American markets caused the Oil Shocks of the 1970s. Today, thanks to oil exploration and hydraulic fracking, the United States is the world’s largest energy producer. US Net oil imports have fallen from a peak of over 13 million barrels per day in 2005 to under 200,000 barrels per day in 2019. The United States exports more oil than it imports. American no longer needs the Middle East.