The Middle East is like Madonna: Its time at the center of things has come and gone, but it is taking a while for that new reality to sink in.
Mitt Romney may be paying what seems to him and his advisors to be an obligatory pilgrimage to Israel this week. And the Obama team is counterprogramming it with a sandwich strategy that has every White House official above the rank of chef visiting there before and after the Republican candidate's trip. But what we are seeing is a ritual that will seem odd a decade from now, a vestige of the late 20th century that, like an aging pop star or an old general, took a while to fade away.
Once upon a time, the Middle East was important due to the combination of its massive reserves of oil and Cold War competition for geopolitical clout. Then, the Soviet Union collapsed. Almost immediately, the region -- and its oil -- was seen to be in play again, this time caught in a competition between the West and a perceived rising threat from Islamic fundamentalists.
But those days are over, or should be. The truth is, the United States has made the Middle East a priority vastly beyond the importance of its economies, population, or influence. The bottom line is that the U.S. reaction to terrorism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was out of all proportion to the size of the threat involved. We overspent in blood and treasure in the region -- so much so that, Libya aside, the appetite for further costly involvement has dwindled to nearly zero in the United States and among our allies.
More importantly for the United States, the importance of the Middle East's oil is rapidly plummeting. Hosanna! According to a recent Citibank report, by 2020 the United States and Canada will produce 20 million barrels of oil a year and, thanks to advances in efficiency, use only about 17 million making us a net exporter -- something unimaginable just a decade ago. For Americans, the Middle East is shifting from vital wellspring of an essential resource to competitor in the provision of something we need relatively less of to grow.
Advances in energy efficiency are virtually certain to reduce the dependence of the United States and that of many other countries on the region's oil. Discoveries of alternative sources of abundant hydrocarbons like shale gas and oil in the United States, Argentina, Canada, China, Poland, and elsewhere will further reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Big offshore discoveries of oil in places in like Brazil will do likewise, as will our growing ability to harness other sources of energy from the sun, from wind, from biofuels, from waves, from geothermal sources, and so on.
Middle East leaders have been conducting a decades-long campaign to ensure that just about any other source of energy in the world is preferable to theirs -- because they are so damn hard to deal with. Arab Spring or no Arab Spring, the region is fraught with risks, instability, and corruption. The region's leaders are arrogant, unreasonable, and untrustworthy. They have stolen from and abused their people, repeatedly betrayed their best customers, and even in the case of the ones who have been more reliable allies, they have been very, very costly friends to have.
Even in places like Israel, with which the United States has and should have a special relationship, the big wheel of history is turning. The old reasons for that unique relationship, associated with the Holocaust and the Cold War, are fading as younger generations take a leadership role. Barack Obama's generation entered the workforce at the time Ariel Sharon was directing Israeli troops into the camps in Lebanon, a watershed that for many washed away much of the positive narrative about Israel the virtuous underdog. From then on, through the Intifada and the construction of new settlements on contested land, Israel has systematically damaged its standing in the eyes of the world (which hasn't been hard to do since so many around the world are predisposed for pretty awful reasons to dislike the idea of a Jewish state to begin with).