The Middle Of Nowhere
By Edward Luttwak
The first mistake is "five minutes to midnight" catastrophism. The late King Hussein of Jordan was the undisputed master of this genre. Wearing his gravest aspect, he would warn us that with patience finally exhausted the Arab-Israeli conflict was about to explode, that all past conflicts would be dwarfed by what was about to happen unless, unless… And then came the remedy—usually something rather tame when compared with the immense catastrophe predicted, such as resuming this or that stalled negotiation, or getting an American envoy to the scene to make the usual promises to the Palestinians and apply the usual pressures on Israel.
We read versions of the standard King Hussein speech in countless newspaper columns, hear identical invocations in the grindingly repetitive radio and television appearances of the usual middle east experts, and are now faced with Hussein's son Abdullah periodically repeating his father's speech almost verbatim.
What actually happens at each of these "moments of truth"—and we may be approaching another one—is nothing much; only the same old cyclical conflict which always restarts when peace is about to break out, and always dampens down when the violence becomes intense enough. The ease of filming and reporting out of safe and comfortable Israeli hotels inflates the media coverage of every minor affray. But humanitarians should note that the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000—about as many as are killed in a season of conflict in Darfur.
Strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war. And as for the impact of the conflict on oil prices, it was powerful in 1973 when the Saudis declared embargoes and cut production, but that was the first and last time that the "oil weapon" was wielded. For decades now, the largest Arab oil producers have publicly foresworn any linkage between politics and pricing, and an embargo would be a disaster for their oil-revenue dependent economies.
In any case, the relationship between turmoil in the middle east and oil prices is far from straightforward. As Philip Auerswald recently noted in the American Interest, between 1981 and 1999—a period when a fundamentalist regime consolidated power in Iran, Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war within view of oil and gas installations, the Gulf war came and went and the first Palestinian intifada raged—oil prices, adjusted for inflation, actually fell.
And global dependence on middle eastern oil is declining: today the region produces under 30 per cent of the world's crude oil, compared to almost 40 per cent in 1974-75. In 2005 17 per cent of American oil imports came from the Gulf, compared to 28 per cent in 1975, and President Bush used his 2006 state of the union address to announce his intention of cutting US oil imports from the middle east by three quarters by 2025.
Yes, it would be nice if Israelis and Palestinians could settle their differences, but it would do little or nothing to calm the other conflicts in the middle east from Algeria to Iraq, or to stop Muslim-Hindu violence in Kashmir, Muslim-Christian violence in Indonesia and the Philippines, Muslim-Buddhist violence in Thailand, Muslim-animist violence in Sudan, Muslim-Igbo violence in Nigeria, Muslim-Muscovite violence in Chechnya, or the different varieties of inter-Muslim violence between traditionalists and Islamists, and between Sunnis and Shia, nor would it assuage the perfectly understandable hostility of convinced Islamists towards the transgressive west that relentlessly invades their minds, and sometimes their countries.
Arab-Israeli catastrophism is wrong twice over, first because the conflict is contained within rather narrow boundaries, and second because the Levant is just not that important any more.