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).
We don't need Israel to be our so-called "aircraft carrier" in the Middle East, as we once did. Yes, the region is volatile and the risks of further instability and the threat from Iran are worthy of the deep concern they generate. But given the periodic flare-ups of unreasonable behavior at the top from the Israeli government, the embrace of Israel as an ally carries with it costs -- and the new technologies of modern conflict offer many alternative ways to counterbalance these risks. That's not to say America is better off without Israel as an ally. We are. Just not at any price.
The demographic and political tides in the region are turning against the Israelis in ways that rightfully have them nervous. Absent a deal with the Palestinians in the next several years, their situation is likely to grow more precarious -- and, with the potential rise of Arab democracy, more difficult to defend for a country like the United States whose foreign policy is built (in theory at least) on ideas like the right to self-determination.
Then there's Iran, which, while undoubtedly a problem, is still after all a middleweight country. It is not a global threat, despite all the hysterical assertions of those in whose interest it is to foment deeper confrontation with that country. And the U.S. ability to offset Iran depends at least as much on the Saudis as the Israelis (which, given that the kingdom itself is a regime at risk, could complicate matters considerably).
This last point is especially important. It is not that the Middle East will suddenly be unimportant, safe, or stable. It is just that the problems there have gone on for so long that Americans are increasingly committed to finding ways to be less affected by them. We are also, thanks in part to our own missteps, less able to afford our past stance of deep engagement. Many of our allies are also constrained. So whether the president's name is Barack or Mitt, when the Middle East becomes more complicated, our response is likely to be less decisive, and we are more likely to defer to others in resolving problems.
The Arab Spring comes at a moment when, given the predisposition of new players like the Chinese and the Indians, the historical, moral, or ideological issues important to the United States and its allies are becoming less central. This will likely produce tolerance of another generation of ugly, strongman governments -- and thus even more reason for us to accelerate our disengagement.
Whether the issue is energy or geopolitics, economics or combatting terror, the Middle East is gradually losing relative importance to the United States. It has cost us too much. Investments of our time and attention elsewhere are likely to bear much higher returns on investment. The region no longer even rates as a top-tier security threat -- the residual extremist threats in the world are increasingly located in places like Africa, the subcontinent, or even Southeast Asia.
Mitt Romney may get the bump he seeks from his visit to Israel. Or Barack Obama may trump it with his politically motivated public displays of diplomacy. But even as they do, the landscape is shifting. Indeed, despite the delusions in Washington that the administration or the policy community here are the ones who make the big choices that drive shifts in global affairs, it is clear that this administration's famous "pivot" from the Middle East to Asia was not so much a policy choice but a recognition of shifting priorities, declining influence, and a changing geopolitical reality. In other words, we didn't pivot. History did.