Discover more from House of Wisdom
Learning foreign policy on the go
It took Sen Murphy seven years to become "a thinker" on the Middle East, but he still gets it wrong
At age 40, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) entered the US Senate in 2013, but was unhappy with the level of his knowledge on foreign policy. So he “just went on a course of study and a course of learning,” he told Jon Alterman of CSIS.
“What I learned really disturbed me,” said Murphy. “The more that I dug into the way in which the United States balances military funding versus nonmilitary funding in our foreign policy toolkit, it looked like a recipe to fail.”
According to Murphy, as he studied the US footprint in the Middle East, he “just couldn't understand why we work so reliantly on an association with the Gulf states, given how many ways they were undermining [US] interests.”
Without the ability to read, speak or understand Arabic, Persian, Hebrew or Turkish, Murphy read secondary literature and, over the course of seven years, voila, he “established an impressive record as a thinker and writer on the Middle East,” according to Alterman. Welcome to Washington, the city of instant pundits and experts.
Murphy told Alterman that he is annoyed that the US thinks of the Middle East, especially the Gulf region, in terms of security only, as if we are still in 1985. Instead, Murphy wants to replace America’s security involvement in the Gulf with “a conversation about a regional security architecture,” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
So let’s unpack Murphy’s understanding of the Gulf region and analyze it. By mentioning the year 1985, Murphy is referring to what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine. In 1979, as America’s ally in Tehran crumbled, Washington feared that Moscow might exploit the chaos and invade its way to the northern bank of the Gulf, threatening energy fields.
Carter put together a force for speedy intervention, and even authorized the usage of tactical nuclear warheads to stop any Soviet invasion through the north of Iran. The US force took over the policing role that Iran, until then America’s ally, played in the Gulf.
In 1979, the Gulf region was the world’s oil reservoir. Making sure that it pumps and sells oil was the lifeline of the economy, and therefore national security, of the US and the Western bloc.
Murphy is right. Since 1980, the Gulf region has lost a great deal of its strategic importance. New energy is displacing fossil fuel, of which huge reserves have been tapped in various regions, around the world, outside the Gulf. So America today can live without Gulf oil, and Murphy wants the US military to hand the keys back to Iran, even though this time Tehran is one of America’s sworn enemies.
But not so fast. Despite the decline in their importance as the world’s gas station, members states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain — imported $35 billion of US exports in 2020, making GCC the ninth biggest importer of US goods and services, on par with Brazil.
China is already GCC’s biggest trading partner. If the US decides to pack up and leave, and to stop selling arms to GCC countries, then China will be thrilled to step up and replace America as the biggest supplier of military hardware to these countries. That will only decrease America’s exports to the Gulf without decreasing the level of arms buildup, while handing over to China a new arms market.
Since the end of the Cold War, America’s global military deployment has raised the ire of senators like Murphy and Bernie Sanders, among others, who just do not see the need for such deployment.
But US bases, spread over the world from Germany, Italy and Turkey to South Korea, Japan and Australia, give America a status that has been the envy of the world. America’s military might maintains global trust in its government, especially the trust of capital owners, who perceive of the US treasury as the safest place to park their capital. This gives the US dollar its status as a global reserve currency, and while most other governments — including China and Russia — struggle to maintain their currency’s value against the dollar, America enjoys unequalled financial status, which is underwritten by its military might and its global deployment.
So when Murphy told Alterman that America has made a “massive mistake, especially in the face of the Russians and the Chinese scaling up all of their nonmilitary tools that can influence friends and adversaries,” he was absolutely wrong.
Over the past decade, Russia — whose economy is a small fraction of America’s — has been sparing every penny it can to fund increased deployments, including in Syria, Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow tried to create a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bank, and hoped such bank could issue a global currency that would displace the US dollar. But the bank never took off, and China still imposes capital controls, banning the movement of US dollars outside its borders, without state permission.
Like Russia, China too has been trying to expand its military footprint, first and foremost in the coastal areas around its neighbors, forcing former President Barack Obama to build a US military base in Australia, for the first time since WWII.
Unlike how Murphy thinks, Russia and China have not been deploying non-military tools to expand global influence, but quite the opposite, they have been trying to convince countries like the affluent GCC to “turn eastward,” abandon their alliance with America, and rely on China for everything — security and otherwise — in return for a hefty bill that keeps Chinese factories chugging, and shuts down US plants (talk about Sen Elizabeth Warren and NSA Jake Sullivan’s a US foreign policy that works for the middle class).
For reasons that remain unclear, Senator Murphy cannot stand Saudi Arabia. Even when debating Lebanon with Alterman, Murphy said that “it’s time to play hardball with Saudi Arabia” to force it to bankroll the free falling Lebanese economy because this “might” prompt reform in Lebanon.
Alterman pushed back, arguing that America cannot really dictate its foreign policy on its allies, and Murphy confidently said that Saudi Arabia and GCC have nowhere else to go. Murphy seems to think that GCC are a bunch of desperate failures, and that America totally owns them.
Because they are America’s allies, Washington should play hardball with the GCC. But with Iran, a sworn enemy, America should only talk to Tehran (and Murphy says he’s held several rounds of meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif). No hardball with Iran, only talking and inviting it to talk to Saudi Arabia and let the two sort out who runs the region’s security, in the hope that Iran achieves its decades old dream of restoring its dominance of the Gulf, not with America’s blessing, but in spite of America. This, Murphy believes, is an “intellectually defensible” foreign policy.