Three decades ago, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened the Saudi oil fields, President George H.W. Bush quickly concluded U.S. military intervention was essential. Now, for a variety of reasons — including Mr. Trump’s reckless and inept behavior — the case for U.S. action is far less clear.
Start with the oil. Though Saudi Arabia still produces 10 percent of the world’s oil supply, the United States is now the world’s largest producer — and its reliance on Saudi imports has dropped dramatically, including by 50 percent in the past two years alone. Though oil prices briefly spiked following last weekend’s attack, there was no panic in the global market. Protecting Saudi oil is a big problem for the kingdom itself; for the United States, it’s not the strategic imperative it once was.
The nature of the threat to Saudi Arabia is also far different from that of 1990. Saddam Hussein’s invasion was a blatant act of aggression aimed at consolidating control over Mideast oil supplies. Assuming it was sponsored by Iran, last weekend’s attack was an escalation of a long-running conflict between the two countries — a struggle for regional influence driven in large part by crude sectarianism.
The U.S. interest in this contest lies not in helping one side win but in promoting a stabilizing balance of power between Iranian-led Shiites and Saudi-led Sunnis. The United States has a vital interest in preventing either Iran or Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear weapons, which is why President Barack Obama prioritized negotiating the international nuclear accord with Iran. The United States has an interest in deterring Iranian aggression against Israel, which is one reason a U.S. presence in Syria remains important. There is, however, no reason for the United States to enable Saudi Arabia’s sectarian jihad against Iran, in Yemen or anywhere else.
Mr. Trump has compromised all of these American interests. He walked away from the nuclear accord, even though Iran was observing it, prompting Tehran to step up nuclear activities. He sided with Mohammed bin Salman’s reckless bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and provided a pretext for the attacks on Saudi targets. He tried to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. And, beginning in April, he sought to shut down all Iranian oil exports, a virtual act of war that led directly to last weekend’s attack.
U.S. interests do not now justify a military conflict with Iran. Yet though Mr. Trump may not want war, his repeated errors have brought him to the brink of it. The Iranian leadership is rejecting his offers of negotiation. Experts on the regime believe it will continue and even step up attacks on Saudi and other targets in the Persian Gulf as long as Mr. Trump’s sanctions are in place. The president’s best course is to find a way to de-escalate.