From Donald Trump’s comments on the attack on a Saudi oil facility, allegedly by Iran, it’s not clear whether he’s itching for a fight, leery of a fight or willing to take part in a fight if his friends in Riyadh want him to. He alternates between talking tough, waxing conciliatory and sounding as though he has no idea what to do.
But the chance of U.S. military action can never be discounted, because, well, we’re the United States and military action is our default option — under presidents of both parties. We are never short of reasons to put our forces in harm’s way.
The reason in this case would be that Iran is our enemy and stands accused of being responsible for a strike on a complex that normally puts out 5.7 million barrels of oil per day — some 5% of the world supply. We would be coming to the aid of the Saudi rulers, who buy our weapons, get along with Trump and share our hostility toward Tehran.
They would be happy to hold our coat while we punch their foe. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once told the French foreign minister that the Saudis would “fight the Iranians to the last American.” But why Americans should take risky actions for their sake is hard to imagine.
Saudi Arabia is not a treaty ally. Its proxy war with Iran in Yemen has nothing to do with us. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, they were unhelpful. In 2016, Trump himself said the Saudis were “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.”
A measure of the regime’s toxic character is that, as The New York Times reported, “the Islamic State adopted official Saudi textbooks for its schools until the extremist group could publish its own books in 2015.” Saudi agents murdered a Washington Post journalist and dismembered him with a bone saw.
We have sometimes found the Saudis to be a useful partner. But just because their interests sometimes converge with ours is no reason to put American lives at risk over their troubles with Iran. The kingdom has the third-biggest military budget in the world, and its arsenal includes American-made F-15s. The Saudis can punish Iran if they choose.
It’s worth wondering why Iran would lash out like this. It is suffering under U.S. economic sanctions — which University of Michigan Middle East scholar Juan Cole describes as the most severe ever imposed on a country in peacetime. For domestic and geopolitical reasons, Iran apparently thinks it has to retaliate. Disrupting the supply of oil is a way of communicating that if they are going to suffer, others will also feel the pain.
The reason the Iranians are suffering is that Trump walked away from a deal that rolled back their nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. He then ratcheted up the sanctions, proving to Iranians the futility of compromising with Washington.
What can we do now? Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, “It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries.” Punishing an attack that reduced oil supplies by mounting an attack to reduce them even more would be a bizarre tactic. It would compound the harm allegedly done by the Iranians rather than neutralize it.
Neutralizing it would not be so hard. The Riyadh regime says it can cover any shortfall from its inventory and restore full production shortly. Even if it can’t, University of Notre Dame political scientist Rosemary Kelanic, author of the forthcoming book, “Black Gold and Blackmail: Oil and Great Power Politics,” tells me strategic petroleum reserves in the U.S. and our allies could fill the gap for nearly two years.
Any increase in prices would also stimulate output everywhere from Russia to West Texas, which would soon bring them back down. The United States, keep in mind, is now the world’s biggest producer, pumping far more than Saudi Arabia.
The overall economic fallout of this episode is likely to be mild. A war with Iran, by contrast, would have brutal economic consequences around the world, not to mention the human carnage.
Maybe Trump should have thought of that before. He abandoned the nuclear deal in the belief that he could force Iran to beg for mercy — a strategy that has only backfired. He is learning an old lesson: It’s easier to get yourself into a fight than to get yourself out of one.