Time to ask whether the Middle East is a Vital Part of American Interest?

01/11/2017 05:09 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2018

Since the 1973 oil embargo, U.S. foreign policy has operated on the assumption that the Middle East is vital to its national interest. Has the time come for the United States to ask the largely unexamined question: How critical is the oil in the Middle East, specifically, Saudi Arabia, to American interests?

There was a time when the question was a no-brainer. Sky-rocketing fuel prices and cars lined up at gas stations for hours (reminiscent of lines at Disneyland) are memories those living at the time will not forget. But is that where America finds itself in the 21st century?

I certainly do not suggest having the answer to the aforementioned question. But I do think it is past time to raise it and to grapple authentically with its implications.

This question will invariably invoke the reflexive response: "What about ISIS?"

ISIS is not an existential threat to America. I suspect changing that narrative would be the first order of business if we are to examine judiciously the importance of oil in the Middle East.

Raising the question about Middle Eastern oil is not advocacy for nationalism. But our current Middle East policies are allowing those nations most impacted by the rise of ISIS to only have a portion of skin in the game.

Since 1973, the American way of life has been perceived as inextricably linked to foreign oil. This perception, which has gone largely unchecked, produced an American narrative that said limits to our way of life are not applicable. This behavior has contributed to the persuasive propaganda put forth by ISIS, and before it al-Qaida.

Can anyone honestly suggest the way America has used its armed forces in the Middle East has made the world better? Would anyone offer that the values America promotes on paper have extended to that region through U.S. military might?

There is a gulf between perception and reality. In 2015, the University of Texas published a poll showing that 58 percent of Americans believe that most U.S. oil comes from Saudi Arabia, and another 15 percent believe it comes from Iraq. The reality is that the United States receives 22 percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

In 2016, the United States does not need the oil or natural gas from the Middle East, yet our policies assume that we do. Last year, the United States lifted its 40-year ban on oil exporting and quickly began supplying nations.

None of this suggests the U.S. forgo its current policies in the Middle East, but a re-examination is sorely needed. In order to change its policy, the U.S. would have to factor in the ramifications.

Would a U.S. change in policy result in higher prices for U.S. consumers to import energy from other countries? How would China react?

Given that China is a major holder of U.S. treasury bills, if its economy takes a big hit due to instability in the region, the U.S. economy would most likely feel the effects in terms of bond prices and higher interest rates.

How would a policy change impact the dollar? Practically all oil is purchased with dollars. Since the financial crisis of 2008, there are a number of oil experts who question the viability of the dollar to be recognized as the sole currency. As it currently stands, if the Saudi government were to fail, the dollar would most likely collapse with it.

These possibilities, however, represent the worst-case scenarios. Is there not something that stands between total extrication from the Middle East and the ineffectual policy that exist?

Since we're still in the speculation season, it is impossible to guess the direction that President-elect Trump will take the country. On the campaign trail he has simultaneously offered a more restrained approach to the Middle East, and at other times suggested a commitment to dive in deeper to the existing quagmire with a plan to destroy ISIS.

But as I have offered in previous columns, none of this matters until Trump takes his seat in the Oval Office.

This is a moment where all citizens must ask whether the Middle East is still part of America's vital interests. Moreover, it is a question that all elected officials in Washington must answer, not with cheap shibboleths and fear- mongering, but with dispassionate reasoning.

Too much is at stake to ignore a question that has been lingering since 1973. And it is a question that a great nation would not ignore because of the difficulty presented by the answer.

Byron Williams, a writer and the host of the NPR affiliated "The Public Morality"