For all of the uncertainty of the Trump administration’s nearly three years in power, genuine international crises have been rare. That’s changing right now. The attack a week ago on Saudi Arabia’s massive Abqaiq oil field took offline half of the country’s oil production—some 5 percent of global output. The drone and missile salvo has the hallmarks of Tehran, and with top administration officials pointing to Iranian culpability, the world is watching to see if and how the United States responds. It’s the most dangerous moment of Donald Trump’s presidency thus far.
Not so long ago, a devastating attack on Saudi oil supplies would almost certainly have elicited an American military response. Ensuring the continued flow of energy from the Middle East was widely seen as crucial, one of the vital American interests that nearly all policy makers believed worth defending. Fracking and reduced U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, the exhaustion and caution borne by two decades of American wars, a new focus on great-power competition, and the complexities of recent diplomacy with Iran have changed all this to a degree.
But only to a degree. Oil prices spiked after the Abqaiq attack, and while they have settled down for now, a new assault could roil them again and harm the American economy. The U.S. defense of Gulf allies, while enshrined in no mutual-defense treaty, has been a general feature of America’s approach to the region since at least the Gulf War. The attack on crucial Saudi infrastructure was inarguably the kind of military aggression Washington wishes not to see repeated. And it followed a summer of hostile actions against tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the shooting down of an American drone.