Discussions about policy on the Persian Gulf seldom include one question: Must the US protect existing regimes in the Arabian Peninsula to guarantee access to energy resources for itself and its allies?
For the past half century, US Gulf policy has rested on three premises:
1. Without governments friendly to the West in the oil- and gas-producing countries, available supplies would be under threat of political blackmail, costly price manipulation, and internal unrest;
2. Under the containment policy, the Soviet Union should be kept from gaining a foothold and access to the Indian Ocean;
3. The rise of militant anti-Israeli influences, possibly bolstered by weapons of mass destruction, would threaten the Israel-Palestine peace process and Israel's security.
Washington is spending millions on military deployments in the area - with less possibility of Gulf war-type reimbursements from friendly countries. International reservations about US actions have forced the US into unilateral moves. Efforts to isolate Iran are creating confrontations with important allies. And the regimes we seek to preserve are increasingly fearful of our embrace.
Some would argue that the overthrow of a brutal despot in Iraq constitutes a sufficient reason for current American efforts. But the US and its coalition allies from the Gulf war have demonstrated that they are not prepared to take the risks involved in pursuing Saddam Hussein to his lair. Recent efforts to accomplish Saddam's overthrow through covert means, depending on fractious exiles, have failed, posing risks to all involved.
Has the time come to reexamine the premises that led us into this quagmire? Will the US public and Congress support indefinitely a costly US presence in a shaky region?
The friendly regimes in the Arabian Peninsula are under internal pressures to change. But should it be assumed that successor regimes will sit on the oil? They'll need to sell their resources to exist, and European countries have shown they pay less attention to the political character of the oil-producing government than does the US. Using energy resources as a political weapon was tried in the oil embargo in 1973 and resulted in the West trying to find alternative sources of energy; that could happen again, with the benefit of more-recent research. Internal unrest can cause at least temporary stoppage of supplies, but the capacity of external powers to deal with such situations is limited. As the Iran-Iraq war demonstrated, not even open conflict between two major producers closed off supplies.
The second premise - relating to Soviet power - has been overtaken by the collapse in Moscow, and no other global force poses any similar threat.
The dangers posed by efforts in Baghdad and Tehran to create weapons of mass destruction are real. But does the US need to take this on unilaterally? On this issue, the US has had broad international support. The main burden of effort has fallen to the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Other nations have shared a fear of proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. And Israel has demonstrated a capacity to create regional deterrence.
The current US election campaign is not the time to reassess US policies toward the Gulf. For candidates on both sides, the fear of being seen as weak overrides any impulse to take a long-term view. But after the election, if the US can be satisfied with international efforts to curb weapons of mass destruction and remains confident of Israel's security, the opportunity arises to ask the tough question: Is the preservation of the status quo in the Arabian Peninsula essential to the continued availability of its oil and gas?
*David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.