Should America Pull Out of the Middle East?

By Nils Hägerdal

Despite an enormous investment of troops and treasure, U.S. security policy in the Middle East is best known for its many failures since 9/11. The war in Afghanistan has failed to reach its political objectives, which have either been unspecified or unrealistic for most of the war. The 2003 invasion of Iraq ranks among the worst foreign policy mistakes in U.S. history. The NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war produced a failed state that serves as a hub for human trafficking and a haven for terrorists. Israelis and Palestinians are further from peace than they have been in several decades. And the mayhem in Syria continues unabated.

If U.S. interventions have not only failed to produce lasting positive change but arguably made the regional situation worse, any reasonable observer might ask the obvious question: Why should the United States not simply pull out of the region and leave its inhabitants to their own devices? In short, a U.S. presence helps stabilize the Persian Gulf, so a complete withdrawal is unwise.  

Any discussion of whether and where the United States should commit military resources must begin with an assessment of what its interests are and how those interests are best served. U.S. engagement in the Middle East during the Cold War had three goals: to secure the flow of oil, prevent the spread of Communism in the Persian Gulf, and ensure the survival of Israel.

Yet today North America is nearly self-sufficient in oil and gas production, Russia is no longer a peer competitor, and Israel not only has peace treaties with the two neighbors that account for most of its land border but also a nuclear deterrent to ward off others. U.S. involvement after 2001 aimed to put an end to the threat of terrorism, but may well have produced more willing recruits for extremist organizations.

To some extent, the U.S. military is already pulling out of the region as the number of ground forces in the Middle East fell sharply in recent years. U.S. military forces left Iraq completely in 2011, although a few thousand special forces returned in 2014 to fight Islamic State. (About 2,000 special forces personnel are also stationed in northeast Syria for the same purpose.) After the 2016 withdrawal of major combat units, the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is down to a residual force of about 8,400 soldiers.

While the same broken record of neoconservative and liberal interventionist voices keep calling for more military resources in the region, both the Obama and Trump administrations have generally resisted sending large ground forces back into the region since President Obama declared an end to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. There is very limited appetite among the American electorate for fighting new land wars in the Middle East.

Should the United States consequently pull out its remaining military resources from the Middle East? There is certainly an argument for ending the war on terror. After all, the Islamic State no longer controls large swathes of territory. Drone strikes may reduce the number of active terrorists, but may also be driving recruitment—especially in countries where the targets of assassinations are local citizens (unlike the Arab members of Al-Qaeda who operated out of Afghanistan). It is far from clear that the militarized approach to counterterrorism—which now stretches as far afield as Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan—is truly reducing long-term threats to U.S. interests.

The main danger of a complete pullout from the region lies elsewhere—an American exit would risk destabilizing the Persian Gulf. The United States has maintained a network of air and naval bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman that dates back several decades, and it has at least two important interests in regional stability. First, the region still represents a substantial share of worldwide oil and gas production. As long as hydrocarbons trade on a global market, production shocks in one area of the world will affect worldwide prices even if the North American continent is technically self-sufficient. Second, a substantial share of world trade passes through regional shipping lanes, stopping at ports in Dubai and elsewhere, en route from Asia to Europe.

The U.S. presence is currently the best security guarantee available to the Arab Gulf states. In its absence, all of these countries would face an intense security threat from Iran, a potential regional hegemon with a substantially larger population, economy, and military than its neighbors.

Saudi Arabia has only about a fourth of the population of Iran, and the other Gulf Arab states have tiny citizenries. None have a large economy beyond oil. Aside from its own military, Iran also commands proxy forces through its connections to the Syrian regime and armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon. With the systematic destruction of the Iraqi state after the 2003 U.S. invasion, this traditional counterweight to Iranian power in the region disappeared.

An abrupt U.S. withdrawal would most likely spur a regional arms race of conventional forces and intensify the temptation to develop a nuclear deterrent. A toxic cocktail of mutual insecurity, escalating arms races, and perceptions of a shifting regional power balance could spark military confrontations of various kinds.

The U.S. presence reduces the risk of a military confrontation by preserving regional stability. A U.S. military presence is also the best insurance policy for containing the effects of a regional military confrontation if it occurred. U.S. interventions managed to keep oil markets relatively stable throughout the 8 years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, partly by protecting and even reflagging oil tankers servicing Gulf ports.

Military bases are easy to dismantle but more difficult to build up. The U.S. military benefits from having access to an extensive network of bases that it established over several decades. If the network is dismantled, it could be difficult to reconstruct as the regional balance of power shifts. For instance, if Gulf states seek closer ties with Russia or China after the United States pulls out, it might be impossible to reestablish U.S. military bases for diplomatic reasons.

In sum, the best U.S. policy is to reduce its military presence in the Middle East to a core of air and naval forces stationed in the current network of bases in the Persian Gulf and avoid committing ground forces to the region. These forces prevent any other state from gaining air or naval supremacy in the region, and a network of established bases allows the United States to quickly increase troop levels in the future if the regional balance of power changes or there is some unexpected political crisis. Force doctrine and posture should be defensive and aimed at preserving regional stability.

The United States should also pursue strong political and diplomatic ties with all countries in the region—including Iran—as part of an overall strategy of deescalating security concerns and political tensions. Military force should be an insurance policy, not a hammer in search of proverbial nails.  

Ironically, the greatest challenge to executing this strategy may come from within the U.S. political system itself. The strategy requires strong political ties to a series of countries, including not just those in the Gulf but also potentially others such as Egypt and Jordan, which are not only ruled by authoritarian regimes but ones with escalating levels of political repression. They jail and torture political prisoners, prevent journalists and academics from doing their jobs, and maintain many policies (for instance on gender issues) that Western voters find repugnant.

Will the American electorate indefinitely support a regional policy based on naked self-interest that actively supports those who violate cherished U.S. political values such as equality and democracy? If U.S. political and military leaders want to pursue a foreign policy of restraint in the Middle East—limited only to preserving stability—they may want to hire a few marketing professionals.

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