By Dr. Irving Kett

The distinguished U.S. naval strategist, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, originated the term Middle East in 1902. It designates the vast region between the western border of Pakistan to the western border of Egypt and the countries south of the former Soviet Union. Admiral Thayer used the term to designate a strategic concept for the land bridge connecting the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The area includes all of the Arab world with the exception of the Mahgreb, that is the northern part of Africa, save Egypt. The region is the cradle of the three major religions of the Western World namely, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Three of its cities, Bethlehem, Mecca, and Jerusalem, are respectively the spiritual centers for each of the three faiths. The northern tier states of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, while devoutly Moslem, are not populated by Arabs. Although only a small part of the billion or so Moslems live in the Middle East, Mecca is the focus of their intense beliefs.

Geography and an essential natural resource, namely petroleum, constitute the strategic importance of the Middle East. The struggle for key geostrategic elements of the Middle East is recorded in the history of the region from the time of the Trojan War for control of the Dardanelles down to the present day conflict between nations within the region and those from outside. This was also the situation during the cold war between the United States and Russia. Under the parched, arid lands of the Middle East are located the largest single known oil reserves in the world. The focus of the United States strategic interests in that area stems from these basic factors, oil and the critically important waterways of the region. Petroleum is today the single most valuable commodity in world commerce; an indispensable item in time of peace and of critical strategic importance in time of war.

Energy: A Vital Commodity

The universal demand for energy is expected to double each decade to satisfy economic expansion and burgeoning populations. The single largest source of energy is derived from petroleum. The principle consumers for the foreseeable future will be the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. The United States with six percent of the world's population consumes approximately thirty percent of the annual output of the world's natural resources. As its domestic production of petroleum continues to decline, the demand in the United States continues to rise.

The U.S. still supplies almost fifty percent of its petroleum requirements of 19.6 million barrels per day (mb/d) from domestic production, although that percentage is constantly decreasing. Western Europe and especially Japan, are almost totally dependent upon imported oil, principally from the Middle East. The politically strong environmental movement in the U.S. is preventing the exploitation of other large potential domestic oil resources situated on the California Coast and the northern slope of Alaska. At the same time it has also prevented any shift toward the more extensive utilization of nuclear power for the generation of electricity as is being done in some of the other advanced industrial nations. For example, France produces close to 90% of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors. That source of power is less than 10% in the United States, despite its having been a pioneer in nuclear technology.

The emergence of the Middle East as the world's leading oil producing region has only occurred during the last half century. The first significant discovery of petroleum took place in Iran in 1908. Of the proven crude oil reserves in the world today about two-thirds are in the Middle East. Despite the daily pro- duction of about 23 million barrels a day, the quantity of known reserves in the Middle East continues to rise because of active exploration. It is estimated that one-third of the known natural gas reserves are also located in the Gulf Coast States.

The present and future dependence of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan upon imports is a matter of paramount significance. Oil from the Middle East also supplies United States military forces throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. The disruption of petroleum supplies from the Middle East in 1973, as a result of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was attacked by Syria and Egypt, caused serious economic problems for the industrial nations of the world.

Aside from strategic considerations, the United States has a huge economic investment in the Middle East petroleum industry. In 1960 the major oil producing countries, led by the Middle East producers, formed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which wields tremendous economic and political power. Another Middle East factor that must be considered is the strident nationalism that pervades the region. This is characterized by extreme hostility to the United States as well as Western culture and presence in general. In the last few decades Islam has become a powerful and very aggressive expansionist force throughout much of the world.

With regards to the rising demand for energy, the low priority currently placed upon developing alternate energy sources is a matter of great concern. Not only is there an element of unreliability with respect to the unrestricted flow of Middle East oil, but it is a non-replenishing commodity. There is only a finite amount available in the world. Each day mankind is burning up this resource, which has taken nature millions of years to produce. Probably no nation has acted with greater irresponsibility in this matter than the United States. Consider the production of electricity. In the United States most of it is generated from fossil fuels such as petroleum. While France and other nations, particularly Japan, are increasingly turning to nuclear energy, the United States has not built a nuclear generating plant in over twenty years and there is none contemplated. This would appear to be a very short-sighted approach to a critical problem. An assured supply of energy is of vital interest to the United States not only in time of war, but also in time of peace.

Petroleum is a fungible commodity. Since the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf region have decreased. The reverse is true with respect to Western Europe and the Far East. As the demand for petroleum increases, the two most promising sources for further production are both located in the same region of the world, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin. Of these two, the Persian Gulf is the most important. It is estimated that within ten years the Persian Gulf States will supply one half of the total world oil requirement, exporting about 45 mb/d. Since most of the increased production must undoubtedly come from the Persian Gulf region, the percentage of United States imports from the Middle East will also rise. In other words there is no visible alternative to greater dependency upon Persian Gulf oil in the foreseeable future. Petroleum and natural gas there are plentiful and easily extracted at relatively low cost. This reality has a powerful impact on political decisions affecting the Middle East by all of the major democracies, including the United States.

It is ironic that the most likely competitor of the Persian Gulf oil exporting nations is the Moslem region right next door, the Caspian Basin. While the latter may possess huge reserves, estimated as high as 200 billion barrels of petroleum and 279 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the problems attendant to the development of these fields and the distribution of the products are presently still far from solution. The increasing dependence upon petroleum from the Persian Gulf entails serious geopolitical risks. The paramount consideration, however, remains the rising demand for energy. As the sole superpower, the burden of these risks falls upon the United States.

The Middle East and Strategic Waterways

The Mediterranean Sea together with the Turkish Straits and the Suez Canal have for many years been among the most important waterways in the world. The latter entrances and exits in the Eastern Mediterranean have been focal points of conflict throughout history. In the 19th Century the European powers struggled with Turkey for control over the Straits which are actually three distinct but connected bodies of water, the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles. In 1915 Great Britain suffered a crushing defeat in the Gallipoli Campaign for control over the vital Straits between the Black and the Mediterranean Seas.

The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 and it immediately became a target for international diplomacy. When Gamal Abdul Nasser, the dictator of Egypt, seized the Suez Canal in 1956, it precipitated a crisis that brought the major powers to the brink of another world war. As a result of the Six Day War between Israel and the Arabs, the Canal was closed for over seven years.

Even though the Suez is again open for shipping, the Canal has not regained its former prominence because of the development of supertankers for the transport of petroleum products that are too large to transit the Suez Canal. They navigate instead around the Cape of Good Hope.

In World War II the Mediterranean Sea was a fierce battleground whose outcome greatly influenced the course of the conflict. During the Cold War years after WW II, both the United States and Russia invested large naval forces in that Sea. The powerful U.S. Sixth Fleet is still in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Despite the continued importance of the Middle East waterways discussed in the above paragraphs, by far the most critical Middle East waterways today are the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Through these waterways pass the vast petroleum exports of the Middle East. For that reason the United States has kept a significant naval force on station in the Persian Gulf since the Gulf War and will probably maintain that presence for the foreseeable future. The Persian Gulf has serious potential for conflict that could threaten Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf oil supply. For some years Iraq and Iran have posed a significant military threat to each other, to the entire Gulf Region, and coincidentally both are very hostile to the United States as well as to Israel.

The Middle East Battleground

Conflict in this strategic area continuously poses a danger to world peace and to U.S. interests. While the region is criss-crossed with intense internecine strife, the most continuous danger of war is the Arab/Israel dispute that has been festering for over fifty years and between Jews and Arabs for a hundred years. Since 1948 these two contestants have fought five major wars, each at a heightened level of intensity and sophistication. Actually the Middle East conflict that resulted in the greatest loss of life and destruction was between two Moslem countries, Iraq and Iran, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. An objective analysis of the needs of the nations directly involved, as well as that of the United States, clearly indicates the urgent need for a lasting peace.

Aside from those between Israel and the Arabs, the Middle East remains embroiled in intense intraregional rivalries, where direct threats to vital United States interests are involved. In the 1990/91 Gulf War, the U.S. was forced to mobilize an expeditionary force of over half a million troops in order to protect the uninterrupted supply of petroleum from the Gulf region from Iraqi aggression. At the present time the situation is further exacerbated by the introduction of non-conventional weaponry, i.e., atomic, bacteriological, and chemical. A looming crisis which may soon erupt concerns the development of these weapons by Iraq and Iran which poses a direct challenge to the United States.

The strategic importance, coupled with a history of almost continuous crisis, requires the United States to consider the Middle East as a crucial factor in formulating worldwide economic and military strategy. After the Six Day War of 1967, the seeming U.S. support for Israel was a major consideration in the Arab turn to Russia for military support. To cope with the Middle East dilemma, several conflicting alternatives have been postulated by U.S. foreign policy makers. These have ranged from maximum support for Israel to counterbalance the combined power of the hostile Arab/Moslem states to the virtual abandonment of Israel in order to curry favor with the Moslem world and assure the vital supply of oil. While U.S. policy over the years has vacillated between these two extremes, neither one ever gained sufficient currency to completely dominate the other.

The abandonment of Israel may become a more imperative option, however, if the latter permits itself to be further weakened by the process of appeasement. In such an event only direct U.S. military involvement could possibly save a truncated Israel from destruction. It is realistic to imagine that such a move, involving loss of American lives, would be very unpopular with the U.S. public. The continued pressure upon Israel by successive U.S. administrations to satisfy Arab territorial demands would appear to be a gambit fraught with danger for the Jews of Israel as well as for the frequently espoused U.S. moral commitment to Israel's survival. The destruction of Israel stemming from such long standing U.S. policy and the lack of an adequate military response at time of crisis would seriously undermine the credibility of the United States in the international arena.

It would, however, be quixotic to deny the obvious truism that the United States has vital interests in the world and even in the Middle East that far transcend not only the security of Israel but the very survival of Israel. Since the demise of the USSR, it is questionable whether Israel is still the important strategic asset of the United States in the Middle East. Prior to the Camp David Accords in 1978, Israel was a significant regional power. Shorn of the Sinai Peninsula and further reduced by the Oslo Accords of 1993 and threatened with the additional loss of the Golan Heights, the continued viability of Israel as a defensible nation is in question. In the past twenty years, therefore, the United States has begun focusing upon Egypt rather than Israel as its most important strategic asset in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Armed Conflict in the New Middle East

Two approaches exist today concerning tactics that need to be employed in the battlefield. One emphasizes high-tech weapons, including high performance manned aircraft and drones, missiles, c3 communication, electronic sensors, and instantaneous computerized battle information; the other places greater importance upon well trained, highly motivated troops, operating in small, mobile units, and prepared to engage the enemy at close quarters with appropriate light infantry weapons. Indications are that determined enemy forces of the latter type, employing deadly and protracted terrorist and guerilla tactics, are what the U.S. would probably face if it permits itself again to become involved in Middle East conflicts.

Examples of the apparent effective use of high performance weaponry that avoids the risk of significant casualties were the Gulf War and the recent conflict in Kosovo, where the latest technology in weaponry was employed to overcome enemy resistance. One may well point out, however, that Saddam Hussein is still in power in Iraq, and that little damage was inflicted on Serbian military assets in the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Had the Serbs persevered a bit longer, the United States would probably have been forced to employ substantial ground forces. The overall efficacy of high performance weaponry as a single dimension tool is still very much open to question.

The obvious failure of high-tech weaponry to impose one's will upon a determined enemy was certainly the U.S. experience in the traumatic defeat suffered in Viet-Nam. More recently the evidence was reinforced by the humiliating withdrawal of the supposedly powewrful Israeli Army from Lebanon in the face of only a few hundred determined guerrillas, to say nothing of the manner in which U.S. forces turned tail, after licking its wounds in Lebanon and Somalia.

No foreseeable enemy in the Middle East will attempt to engage U.S. forces on the basis of matching tank for tank, aircraft for aircraft, artillery piece for artillery piece, or even soldiers trained in the hubris of the most modern weaponry.

This does not mean that a dedicated force as we have seen to exist in this region, willing to take casualties, fighting a cunning guerilla/terrorist type of war and able to blend in with the local population may not in the end prevail. That enemy will probably consist of highly dispersed, mobile forces, well equipped for its harassing mission, supported by large civilian populations, and again one must emphasize, not afraid to accept death in order to gain its objectives. In such an environment, infantry will again regain its historic role as the queen of battle.


The strategic importance of the vast petroleum reserves in the Middle East, along with its vital sea lanes, requires the United States to consider this region carefully in formulating its foreign policy decisions. These considerations must be coupled with an awareness of the continuous proclivity for violence and fierce hatred of Western culture that is endemic among the people living in the Middle East.

Probably the most visible and persistent flash point will continue to be the Arab/Israel dispute, despite repeated attempts to paper over the deep-seated conflict with agreements and peace treaties. The enmity that exists combines the most explosive mix of extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism. As opposed to Israel, all of the Arab states are governed by dictatorships, manifesting varying degrees of repression and brutality toward their own people. The United States must eschew permitting itself to become too deeply involved in this intractable dilemma. Possibly the best policy for the United States to follow in the 21st Century Middle East, except where its direct vital interests are immediately concerned, would be one of gradual disengagement and benign neglect. If a solution to the problems is to be found, it will have to be formulated and implemented solely by the indigenous population and governments.

With respect to wars in the 21st Century, the major task of all U.S. governments should be to avoid involvement in the terrible destruction inherent in modern weaponry and tactics, and to protect their nation from international terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Terrorism, together with widespread unconventional guerilla-type warfare, may become the hallmark for future conflict. This is in contradiction to the notion that since high-technology weapons exist, that the wars in the 21st Century will necessarily be waged with them. While the history of the present century will probably record many bloody conflicts, possibly very few outcomes, if any, will be determined by the massive utilization of the most advanced weaponry. One of the greatest challenges facing U.S. military professionals in the 21st Century will be to refute the myth that the United States can wage successful push-button wars that will make combat effective, quick, clean, and bloodless, at least insofar as American forces are concerned.



1. "Area Handbook for Israel", U.S. Dept. of the Army, 1970.

2. "Area Handbook for Saudi Arabia", U.S. Dept. of the Army, 1970.

3. "API Reports", American Petroleum Institute, Fall 2000.

4. "A Proposed Solution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict", Kett, Irving, LTC, U.S. Army War College, 1974.

5. "Command Decisions", Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 1960.

6. "Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East", Kemp, Geoffrey, Harkavy, Robert E., Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

7. "The Middle East in World Affairs", Lenczowski, George, 3rd Edition, Cornell University Press, 1962

8. "United States Military Posture", Moorer, Thomas H. Admiral, USN, Testimony before U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, 1975.


Irving Kett
Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired

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