Andrew Bacevich’s new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, is much more than what its subtitle advertises, “a military history.” It begins with a reminder that our armed interventions in the Middle East—dating back to the Carter administration—are about protecting our way of life. But not in the way that the propaganda of American exceptionalism insists: these wars are not about our freedoms or ideals so much as our consumer lifestyles. Indeed, what passes for those freedoms and ideals depends on the way of life made possible by abundant, secure, and relatively cheap oil. There is no freedom of the open road without a tank of gas, after all. Donald Trump gets ridiculed for saying we should “take the oil” of the Middle Eastern countries we attack, but that’s only putting crudely what in a more sophisticated way is already U.S. policy. We don’t take the oil ourselves, we just maintain a certain relationship between the state system and petroleum markets. Political access, not outright ownership, is the name of the game.
Bacevich has some sympathy with President Carter, who tried to strike at the root cause of our Middle East fixation, only to have his call for greater self-discipline considered a concession to “malaise” instead. Carter, with his aura of weakness, was hardly the leader to inspire a nation to Spartan austerity. Free-market libertarians, by contrast, see the problem not in the ends of our way of life but in the means: why not let a Saddam Hussein or revolutionary Iran, or even the Soviet Union, gain political leverage over the oil, when it has to be sold on a more or less open world market anyway? To which, unfortunately, the policy-making classes have a ready answer: we’d rather not take the risk. A market under our political control—or so we like to imagine—is always better than one susceptible to the influence, however marginal, of illiberal states. Whatever solid ground the libertarian argument might stand upon in economics, in political psychology such reasoning is out at sea.
But oil prices are now low, thanks in part to the tight oil revolution brought about by new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), and America is war-weary. In combination, these facts establish cultural preconditions for changing our posture toward the Middle East. Even among the elite, the relative importance of the region has diminished, and for the middle class the high cost of war for oil security and negligible benefits of regional hegemony have become obvious. Trump’s confused rhetoric—and the surprising success of his campaign—is both a sign of how things are changing and an indication of how unpredictable the direction of change remains. Pious liberal hegemony for the sake of maintaining a consumer way of life may give way to a nationalistic grand strategy that merely serves the same purpose. Take the oil and share the wealth.
At least two other paths are possible, however. One points toward an emphasis on autarky—on the resources within our borders and internal development over external trade—and the other requires striking a better balance between consumption and self-denial, in much the way Carter had urged in 1979. The unlikeliest thing of all, a fusion of a free-market system of global trade with an ethos that values self-control over controlling other people’s resources, would perhaps also be best of all for America. But short of that, a mixture of philosophies and social forces might be good enough: antiwar consumerists and autarkic nationalists against the empire of oil and its way of life.