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U.S. involvement in the Middle East has long been driven by two things: Israel, which we just heard about, and our dependence on oil, which we turn to now. Because the U.S. is producing more of its own oil, imports from the Persian Gulf have declined sharply in recent years. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on what that might mean for our overseas priorities.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For about 40 years, there's been one story about the connection between oil and U.S. foreign policy: We need a big security presence in the Persian Gulf because that's where we get our oil. It means we cozy up to Saudi Arabia. We have aircraft carriers stationed around the Gulf. We'd even go to war to keep the oil shipping lanes open. President Carter made it official in his State of the Union speech IN 1980.
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PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America.
GJELTEN: Such an assault, Carter said, will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. It became known as the Carter Doctrine. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, threatening the Gulf oil supply, the United States and its allies intervened. Roger Altman, who served as number two in the Clinton administration's Treasury Department, says the Gulf War was about more than helping Kuwait restore its sovereignty.
ROGER ALTMAN: There were a lot of oil implications underneath that whole episode and our response to it and so forth. I'm not saying we wouldn't have liberated Kuwait absent the oil factors, but they had to play a big role.
GJELTEN: But the oil picture has changed since then. The share of U.S. oil coming from the Gulf has dropped sharply. A lot of that oil is going instead to China, Japan and Korea. Mikkal Herberg directs the Energy Security Program at The National Bureau of Asian Research.
MIKKAL HERBERG: The Asian states are really the prime consumers of Middle East oil. We get very little oil from the Gulf here in the U.S. any more. In the future, we will need virtually no Persian Gulf oil to speak of.
GJELTEN: A report out this week from the International Energy Agency projects that by 2035, nearly 90 percent of Persian Gulf oil will be destined for Asia, a tiny percentage will go to the United States. The U.S. will be producing more of its own oil and getting more from Canada, Mexico and Brazil. It's a profound shift. Roger Altman, now chairman of Evercore Partners, says the new U.S. oil trade will realign U.S. foreign policy.
ALTMAN: U.S.-Brazil relations will be quite important. Relations with Mexico will be quite important. They'll be more important from an energy point of view than relationships with Iraq or Libya or potentially Iran.
GJELTEN: Both presidential candidates during their campaigns promised to reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil even further. Play that out, says Mikkal Herberg, and it raises questions about whether the Carter Doctrine should still apply.
HERBERG: The U.S. has been the guarantor of the sea lanes and the Gulf producers because we felt that was vital to U.S. energy security interests. As we become quasi energy-independent, it's likely, I think, that there will be questioning here in the U.S. Do we really need to carry that load?
GJELTEN: If protecting the Persian Gulf oil supply doesn't matter so much anymore, maybe that could - could - justify some U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. But somebody still needs to secure those Gulf shipping lanes. China is fast becoming the number one buyer of Persian Gulf oil and is benefiting from the huge U.S. security presence in the region. Mikkal Herberg raises this question: Maybe the United States should pull its aircraft carriers out of the Gulf and let China take over security responsibilities there.
HERBERG: Strategically, that's not something we'd really want to do. But in an oil sense, they are now the prime beneficiary of this and free rider on these free sea lanes that the U.S. keeps open. So how do you manage that conflict?
GJELTEN: The Pentagon's new defense strategy released last January says the United States should rebalance toward the Asia Pacific region. But it did not call for a downgrading of the U.S. role in the Middle East. And there may be an oil reason for this. Oil is traded in a global market. U.S. may not need as much oils from the Persian Gulf as it used to, but it does need that Persian Gulf oil to keep moving, says Mikkal Herberg, because a disruption of the oil flow in the Gulf would raise the oil price for everybody.
HERBERG: In a sense, the U.S. has a new dilemma. Its access to oil is increasingly very secure in North America, Western Hemisphere, little reliance on the Gulf access. But in terms of the oil price, global oil markets, the impact on the global and U.S. economy, that flow of oil from the Gulf remains a vital interest.
GJELTEN: If the price of oil were to skyrocket because of some trouble in the Persian Gulf, it would mean a bigger share of the U.S. economic pie leaving the country, a higher trade deficit. Carl Pope, the former chairman of the Sierra Club, sums up the key issue this way.
CARL POPE: It's not so much the barrels of oil we import. It's the hundreds and billions of dollars we export that threaten our security.
GJELTEN: So the U.S. does not buy as much Persian Gulf oil as it used to while China buys more than it used to. The geopolitics of energy are changing. But the U.S. still needs that oil to flow freely so those aircraft carriers will be needed in the Persian Gulf for a while yet. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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