I can start by saying that a “vital interest” of the United States is something that can be threatened. President Jimmy Carter, the last good President in my opinion, averred that the flow of petroleum products through the Straits of Hormuz was a vital interest of the U.S. and would precipitate our military intervention if it were threatened.
Expressed in the contrapositive, if it cannot be threatened, then it is not a vital interest.
Thomas Friedman in the New York Times [in a column described by Stephen Walt of Harvard as “filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum” but which gives no credit to any ‘co-author’] provides a telling quotation
“We now use 60 percent less energy per unit of G.D.P. than we did in 1973,” explained the energy economist Philip Verleger. “If the trend continues, we will use half the energy per unit of G.D.P. in 2020 that we used in 2012. To make matters better, a large part of the energy used will be renewable. Then there is the increase in oil and gas production.” In 2006, the United States depended on foreign oil for 60 percent of its consumption. Today it’s about 36 percent. True, oil is a global market, so what happens in the Middle East can still impact us and our allies. But the urgency is gone. “The Middle East is China’s problem,” added Verleger.
Walt himself quotes Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas, to the effect that enormous political changes in the Mideast during the last couple of years have had no discernible effect on U.S. interests:
Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010?
Walt himself finds the
comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the “Arab Spring” can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of “vital U.S. interests?”
We readers are subjected to argument by rhetorical question here, which is never a lucid approach. To be clear then, the vital interests of the United States are what the military forces are supposed to defend.
For good and sound economic reason, the U.S. no longer has a vital interest in the flow of Persian Gulf petroleum.
Experience has shown that no discernible threat to the well-being of the U.S. has arisen as a consequence of the major upheavals in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, not to mention Libya, since 2010.
The conclusion a thoughtful observer would have to draw is that the U.S. military intervention in Syria, which is going to take place but which has not yet happened at this writing, is yet another imperialist adventure. It reminds me of Vietnam. When the Hawks were shown by the Doves that the control of a bit of Southeast Asian swamp was of no vital interest to the U.S., the response was, that that was proof of our noble, unselfish motive in invading: that we had no vital interest justified our killing 2 million Vietnamese and 50,000 American soldiers.
It made no sense then, and it makes no sense now: both were and are exercises in enforcing the U.S. hegemony, by force.