Why the U.S. Must Make the Middle East Less Important

Reducing our use of oil would make the region less significant. That would be good for everyone

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Illustration by Noma Bar for TIME

American foreign policy this fall will feature the Middle East: we will see a push for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear-weapons program and the hope that Iraq will remain stable as U.S. troops leave. Experience suggests that the chances of success for all three are poor. Over the years, the Middle East has proven inhospitable, if not downright hostile, to American initiatives. Recognizing this, the two previous administrations launched signature programs to transform the region into a friendlier place for American interests. Both failed. The Obama team should try a different approach, one that begins at home.

The Clinton Administration tried and failed to make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Obama Administration's prospects are no brighter, and even if it could broker a peace, it would not end the many other Middle Eastern conflicts that threaten U.S. interests. The Bush Administration tried to promote democracy in the region, concentrating on Iraq. Perhaps some day that country will become a full-fledged democracy, which could serve as an example for other Arab countries. But that day, if it ever arrives, will not come during this Administration.

Since no policy open to it can make the Middle East safe for the U.S. and the world, the Obama Administration should act to make the world safe from the pathologies of the Middle East. It can do that by making the region less important. The Middle East matters because the world depends heavily on its oil. Since the U.S. uses so much oil, a major reduction in American consumption would substantially lower the global total. The less oil the world uses, the less important the region that has so much of it becomes.

Moreover, lower U.S. consumption could reduce the international price of oil, which would decrease the funds flowing to the governments that depend heavily on oil revenue to finance policies unfriendly to the U.S. Foremost among those governments is Iran's, which would have less money with which to build nuclear weapons and to support the terrorist organizations it sponsors. Another is Saudi Arabia's, which uses its oil wealth to propagate an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism known as Wahhabism, which has inspired many Middle Eastern terrorists, including those who attacked New York and Washington on 9/11. That means that by consuming so much oil, the U.S. is in effect fighting a war against terrorism while funding both sides.

Lower U.S. oil consumption would also weaken oil-dependent leaders outside the Middle East who pursue anti-American policies: Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia. While the world will not be able to do entirely without Middle Eastern oil for many decades, substantially lowering the amount of oil we use would reduce the region's significance while shifting the balance of power between producers and consumers in favor of consumers — that is, in favor of the U.S. and its friends.

The best way to reduce oil use is to raise the price of gasoline. People would then use less of it. In the short term, they would drive less and make more use of public transportation. Over the long term, they would demand fuel-efficient vehicles. At the same time, higher gasoline prices would make renewable fuels like ethanol and electrically powered cars economically viable.

While West European countries and Japan impose high taxes on gasoline, the U.S., the world's largest consumer, does not. Compared with what the U.S. national interest requires, gasoline is ruinously cheap for Americans. The refusal of the U.S. to charge itself as much for gasoline as is good for it (and for other countries) is the single greatest foreign policy failure of the past three decades.

Correcting that failure will not be easy. Taxes of any kind are unpopular, and to pass a gasoline tax, the Administration would have to compensate low-income Americans who depend on their cars. It would have to present the measure for what it is — the nation's most important national-security policy — make it the highest legislative priority and invest substantial political capital in seeing that it was passed.

Such an effort, however, would be worthwhile. Reducing oil consumption by raising the gasoline tax would once again make the U.S. a resolute and effective global leader. Unlike the Administration's fall diplomatic initiatives, it would not require the cooperation of the governments or people of other countries. Most important of all, as a strategy for shielding Americans from the dangers of the Middle East, it would certainly succeed.

Mandelbaum's new book, The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era, from which this essay is adapted, was just published by PublicAffairs.