The smoke hasn’t yet cleared from the attack on Saudi Aramco’s facility, but U.S. officials were quick to pin blame on Iran, with some even going so far as to suggest that military strikes could be – and should be – in the offing.
Such a move should upset constitutional purists; Congress hasn’t authorized military action against Iran for these purposes. The case that the Trump administration might present to Congress in an attempt to build support for strikes is unlikely to be compelling. Indeed, the story of the attack and what U.S. military strikes in retaliation would achieve is a lot more complicated than the war hawks would have you believe.
First, everyone should keep the likely economic impact in perspective. The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that production losses from the shutdown at the Abqaiq facility would amount to “about 5.7 million barrels a day,” or “roughly 5% of the world’s daily production of crude oil.” But such supply shocks are rarely long-lasting, and facilities like the one at Abqaiq are often quickly repaired. Saudi Aramco is no different from any other company in that it wants to increase production as quickly as possible, and so is highly motivated to make speedy repairs. (Boston University’s Josh Shifrinson makes a related point here.)
Second, the energy market in general is far more resilient than people give it credit for. In addition to the strategic petroleum reserve, which President Trump has hinted he might tap, other energy producers will want to replace the lost Saudi supplies. If President Trump were truly concerned about the possible impact on gasoline prices for consumers, he might also reconsider his decision to try to keep Iranian oil off the market.
That is unlikely, however, because too many in his administration –and the DC policy community, generally – seem genuinely excited to use this latest incident as a justification for a widening of the conflict with Iran.
Last week, for example, before the attack, the State Department’s Brian Hook suggested that Iran is primarily responsible for fueling the war in Yemen, and claimed that greater U.S. involvement in the conflict was essential to preserving American security. The facts suggest otherwise.
Mr. Hook and others exaggerate the extent to which Iran controls the Houthis. The latter are a distinct group largely driven by narrow, local goals – not a proxy group doing Iran's regional bidding. They don't take orders from Tehran. Aiding the Houthis hasn't brought Iran greater regional control. What it has done is frustrate the Saudi coalition's objectives, sticking them in a quagmire that has earned them much of the world's ire.
While some in Congress want Americans to become even more deeply embroiled in the Saudi-Iran dispute, we might instead take this occasion to reconsider our reflexive support for the House of Saud. The United States is, after all, already heavily involved in the proxy war that the two countries are waging in Yemen, mostly through intelligence sharing and arms sales. A report earlier this year concluded that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “used the US-manufactured weapons as a form of currency to buy the loyalties of militias or tribes” in Yemen, including some who are affiliated with Al Qaeda. Other arms reportedly flowed to Iranian-backed militias. The Senate voted in June to block further sales, with seven Republicans joining the Democrats to rebuke the White House. This rare case of bipartisanship is unsurprising given that numerous polls show that the American people are anxious to avoid getting sucked into yet more conflicts in the region. Americans also strongly disapprove of continued U.S. support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most illiberal and repressive regimes on the planet.
Congress should seriously consider the implications of military action in response to the attack on Abqaiq. Military strikes against Iran would only exacerbate tensions and increase the likelihood of a larger military conflict. The Trump administration’s bid to embroil the United States even more deeply in a brutal civil war undermines Americans' security and erodes American values.