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Stop Protecting China’s Access to Oil

U.S. policies in the Middle East have wasted American blood and treasure and guaranteed China's continued supply of oil.

While polls show overwhelming majorities of Americans agree that the United States needs to end its many forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, some in Washington’s elite foreign policy circles fear any military withdrawals, worrying about alleged vacuums our adversaries will fill. Substantial evidence, however, shows the American people have a far better grasp on what benefits our country than the so-called elite.

On Sunday, Gen. Frank McKenzie of United States Central Command said that as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan—and potentially from Iraq and Syria in the near term—he worries that “Russia and China will be looking very closely to see if a vacuum opens that they can exploit.” One of the risks McKenzie cited was that Middle Eastern countries may stop buying American weapons and look to Moscow or Beijing instead.

This fear, shared by many in Washington, illustrates one of the central problems the United States has had for at least the past decade in establishing a proper balance between our interests in the Middle East and how we expend limited resources in support of them. There was a time not too long ago when securing the free flow of oil from the Middle East was a vital national security issue for the United States.

According to the Energy Information Administration, as recently as January 2007, the U.S. had a monthly net import of 12.2 million barrels of oil. By January 31 of this year, however, that number had been changed to a net export of .8 million barrels for the month. China, meanwhile, which only imported 3.2 million barrels of oil per day in 2007, has now significantly deepened its dependence on Middle Eastern oil and now imports more than 11 million barrels a day.

While global oil supplies remain an interest of the United States, without question the Middle East is far less critical to our security today than it was decades ago. Yet the dramatic changes in the relative importance of Middle Eastern oil for the United States and China has not been reflected in our foreign policy and military posture.

According to a study published in 2018 by the energy think tank Securing America’s Future Energy, the U.S. military spent approximately $81 billion a year in protecting global oil supplies; Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, estimates the number could exceed $100 billion annually. Consider, then, the stark implications of what this level of American military support to the Middle East means.

The United States is spending exorbitant amounts of national treasure providing a military presence that helps guarantee the free flow of oil that benefits China. While we are at present a net exporter of petroleum, Beijing is dependent on the continued free flow of Middle Eastern oil for its survival—yet China spends virtually nothing to guarantee that flow while American taxpayers are left, every year, holding the bag. That needs to change.

America currently has combat troops on duty in Iraq, Syria, and in Afghanistan (until September), yet we have more than 50,000 troops in the greater Middle East on duty at any given time. This level of investment of troops and resources is clearly no longer appropriate and needs to change. It saps our country of power and prevents us from adequately funding and manning other, higher priorities.

One of the few things Washington is unified on is the need to update our policies on responding to a rising China. While there are disputes over whether to focus on containment or competition with Beijing, there should be complete agreement on the imperative to stop spending U.S. treasure and using American combat power that inadvertently protects China’s flow of oil from the Middle East. But the core reason we should get out of the Middle East is as simple as this: It is in our interests to do so; it strengthens our own security; and it ends the pointless bleeding of national treasure.

Rather than fearing withdrawals from unnecessary combat missions, American policymakers should place a high priority on reforming our entire foreign policy and military posture towards the Middle East and bringing it into conformity with existing realities.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.