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Reality Check June 24, 2021

Reality Check #8: Rethinking US military policy in the Greater Middle East

By Robert A. Manning and Christopher Preble

Key points

  • Decades of costly and inconclusive US wars in the Greater Middle East have produced neither peace nor stability. The region remains one of the poorest and most conflict-prone in the world.
  • Radical geopolitical and economic change in the Greater Middle East and new US strategic priorities with regard to core US interests—ensuring oil flows, maintaining Israel's security, preventing the rise of a dominant regional hegemon, and countering terrorism—require a zero-based rethinking of US strategy and posture in the region.
  • The United States should reduce its network of air and naval bases in the Greater Middle East and design a much smaller footprint tailored to redefined requirements. An emphasis on access agreements, combined with robust diplomacy, would allow Washington to foster a stable equilibrium in the region.

What’s the issue?

President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan might mark an inflection point—the beginning of a wider recognition that, twenty years after 9/11, the blood and treasure ($6.4 trillion) spent in the Greater Middle East has brought few benefits to US interests and neither peace nor stability to the region. Substantially changed regional and global circumstances, as well as shifting US strategic imperatives, require a new US strategy.

US posture and policy toward the Middle East has been largely unchanged for decades. US national security policy seems impervious to its own demonstrable failures and to the vastly altered economic and geopolitical circumstances in the region. Even after the drawdown of most US military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States continues to station tens of thousands of troops in the Greater Middle East (varying with the ebb and flow of developments) and also maintains a ring of air and naval bases there. Yet, by all appearances, the US military presence has had little impact on a range of festering, multilayered civil and internationalized conflicts in, for example, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and has failed to solve lingering instability in Iraq or avert near-state failure in Lebanon. Although jihadi terrorism has hardly disappeared, the threat is mostly local and manageable with only a small, residual US military presence, if that.

Foreign policy elites are reluctant to acknowledge the limits of American power. At the same time, polls show most Americans believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting and that the US public is unenthusiastic about involvement in new wars in the region. Americans’ lack of appetite for more conflict is obvious to regional actors, regardless of the United States’ military presence. Thus widespread competition for influence among a growing array of actors has ramped up.

Some leading voices in the United States are beginning to articulate how counterproductive US policies have been. For example, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) recently delivered a blunt assessment, lamenting Washington’s “hubristic confidence in its ability to accomplish political goals though military intervention,” and noting that “the most significant effect of recent US Middle East adventurism has been to fuel perpetual wars.” Others have assessed that US interests in the region do not warrant the considerable expenditure in lives, resources, and commitment there.

Why does it matter?

The core assumptions underpinning US policy—ensuring oil flows, maintaining Israel’s security, preventing the rise of a dominant hegemon, and countering terrorism—have been upended by new realities.

Since the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, access to hydrocarbons has been a primary driver of US policy toward the Middle East. This was codified by the 1980 Carter Doctrine, which declared that the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf was a vital US interest. Yet the shale revolution has transformed the geopolitics of energy. The United States has become the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. The center of gravity of global hydrocarbon production has shifted toward the Western Hemisphere—the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil.

This raises questions about the logic of the 75-year-old US-Saudi “oil-for-security” bargain. The United States gets more oil from Mexico than from Saudi Arabia. Seventy-five percent of Persian Gulf oil is exported to Asia—to China, India, Japan, and South Korea—giving these countries a strategic interest in the security of the sea lanes through which oil supplies flow.

Of course, oil markets are still global. A supply disruption anywhere produces price increases everywhere, but history shows that such disruptions have been minimal. The dependence of the Gulf states on oil and gas exports, robust strategic petroleum reserves in the United States and in other International Energy Agency (IEA) partner states, and a diversity of suppliers has meant that—despite the Iraq wars, Libya’s collapse, and Iranian missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities—price spikes have been brief and the effects manageable. Looking ahead to 2035-40, the world is at the beginning of a transition to a post-petroleum economy. The lack of any US response to numerous attacks on Saudi oil facilities reveals that the Carter Doctrine is waning.

Although Israel continues to be a pivotal intelligence, defense, and technology partner of the United States, its status has been transformed because it has become far more self-reliant. Israel is a leading global tech innovator, has a world-class military, and has the ultimate insurance policy: secure, second-strike nuclear weapons. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have neutralized frontline states, Syria is broken, and, most dramatically, the 2020 Abraham Accords have created a new, formal strategic alignment for Israel with key Gulf states, plus Morocco and Sudan. Saudi Arabia may soon normalize relations with Israel. Meanwhile, owing to gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel is becoming an energy exporter.

For the foreseeable future, it is difficult to envision a hegemonic power emerging in the region.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains unresolved, and recent violence has revealed a deeper civil discord between Arab and Jewish Israelis. Nevertheless, if a two-state solution were reached tomorrow, the major conflicts in the region—in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Sunni-Shia proxy wars—would be largely unaffected. A two-state solution remains a vital Israeli interest, and Israel has the power to achieve such a solution. A resolution of the Palestinian question almost certainly would result in deeper relations between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. On the other hand, analysts do not know how continued Israeli-Palestinian strife would affect the burgeoning Sunni Arab-Israel entente.

Israel’s principal external threat is Iran—a country that is currently mired in a COVID-19 crisis and has a frail economy. Iran’s efforts have prolonged wars, contributed to broken states in Syria and Yemen, and produced near-state failure in Lebanon. Nevertheless, there is a growing sense of exhaustion in the region; skillful US-led diplomacy and parallel Saudi-Iran dialogue can help lead the major players out of this quagmire and toward a stable regional détente.

Many Washington policymakers are concerned that a dominant regional hegemon will come to power. Apart from the United States, the current geopolitical landscape features a wide range of actors competing for influence in the region: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as well as Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Israel, China, and India. Many of these parties have intervened in the internationalized civil wars in Libya and Syria. For the foreseeable future, it is difficult to envision a hegemonic power emerging. In fact, this multisided dynamic lends itself to reimagining the United States as operating mostly offshore and from the air—intervening militarily only in those rare instances when the balance of power in the region threatens vital US interests.

Some are apprehensive about what Beijing has called a “strategic partnership” with Iran, but that appears to be a vague 25-year investment-for-discounted-oil deal. This concern about an evolving China-Iran axis is overstated. First, China’s economic deals rarely add up to actual aid and investment at the levels announced. Moreover, China has many other interests in the region and also has ties with Saudi Arabia and the GCC; thus, Beijing remains aloof from Sunni-Shia conflicts. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia (which supplies 15 percent of Chinese oil imports) and Iraq (9 percent), are China’s largest oil suppliers. In 2020-21, a mere 3 percent of China’s oil was imported from Iran. China has sold more arms to US-aligned GCC states than to Iran. In fact, opportunities might exist for US-China cooperation in the region, including coordinating Beijing’s strategic petroleum reserve with that of IEA members in a prolonged supply crisis.

Last, countering jihadi insurgency might be an area of more continuity than change. US policy has evolved during the past decade into one where US intelligence and surveillance capabilities, air assets, and Special Forces assist local partners that must own the operations against terrorist groups. This rough approach has been sustained from the Obama administration through the Trump term and appears to extend to the Biden administration. Adequate counterterrorism capacity can be maintained primarily with more robust access agreements and cooperation from local partners, with less need for permanent bases.

What is the solution?

Given these realities, the United States should substantially reduce the number of US forces permanently stationed in the region and scale down or eliminate routine US Navy deployments to the Persian Gulf. Occasional joint exercises in and around the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea could include ships on Mediterranean or Indo-Pacific deployments, but the anachronistic requirement to maintain a US carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf poses an unnecessary burden on a US Navy that is already strained to the breaking point.

The United States should conduct a zero-based review, seeking to trade bases for places: instead of maintaining fixed assets and permanent air and naval facilities, Washington should renegotiate and extend access arrangements with local partners. Greater investments in intelligence and early warning, as well as continued close coordination with regional states—and other countries with an interest in preserving a regional balance of power—will be equally important. In exchange, the elimination of the permanent carrier presence would help the US Navy divert its scarce shipbuilding resources away from those legacy platforms to new technologies (e.g., unmanned aerial and subsurface vehicles, as well as enhanced missile defenses).

The biggest changes to US force posture and force requirements, however, pertain to vulnerable US Army and Air Force bases. This on-the-ground presence dates back to the first Gulf War, and terrorist groups have cited it as a key rationale for numerous attacks against the United States and US personnel. These include the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996 and US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001. The George W. Bush administration noted the linkage between a US military presence and terrorism directed against the United States as a reason for wanting to remove troops from Saudi Arabia. As then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz testified before Congress in February 2003, resentment over the stationing of US forces there had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.” Wolfowitz explained that the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq would enable the United States to withdraw from the region. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to . . . be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

The Greater Middle East holds limited interests for US national security and certainly none that require a continued and de facto permanent military presence there.

Although the al-Qaeda threat has greatly diminished, anger and resentment toward US forces in the region—and Washington’s continued support for unpopular governments—remains. Meanwhile, Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile capabilities are a new factor putting US forces at risk. It is therefore vitally important to US security interests to end or reduce the permanent deployment of forces to Kuwait—the legacy of a war that ended more than a decade before most of the US troops there were born—as well as in other major bases in Iraq, Bahrain, and Oman. These moves could allow for a permanent reduction in the size of the active-duty force. Similarly, the US Air Force should terminate routine overflights in the region, close many of the associated bases that support these operations, and redirect resources to reflect the elimination of this unnecessary mission.

These fundamental changes to US deployments and the composition of US forces might strike some as dramatic, but they are relatively modest given the changes that have occurred since the Carter Doctrine was handed down over forty years ago. US policymakers need to understand the limits of American power and align US resources to secure vital interests. In the Middle East, that means encouraging the emergence of a regional balance of power. It also means combining a reduced US military footprint in the region with robust diplomacy, particularly in facilitating a Sunni-Shia détente in the Gulf. This may be aided by an element of exhaustion, as suggested by recent secret Saudi-Iranian talks held in Baghdad.

Pursuing this strategy will require proactive and creative diplomacy on Washington’s part to fashion a sustainable, stable offshore-balancing role and a willingness to shift away from the military-centric approach that has defined US policy for decades. The pace and scope of the transformation suggested here will depend on diplomatic success with Iran.

Defenders of the status quo in the Middle East warn that pressure from Washington risks pushing Gulf states toward the United States’ foreign rivals. However, as Senator Murphy notes, “this argument is a red herring, one that plays on a misunderstanding of both the irreplaceability of military alignment with the United States and the willingness of China and Russia to get their hands dirty in Middle Eastern politics.” 

The Greater Middle East holds limited interests for US national security and certainly none that require a continued and de facto permanent military presence there. President Biden’s decision to remove the remaining US forces from Afghanistan reflects a decision to prioritize the Indo-Pacific region. Recalculating US strategic priorities to reflect geopolitical trends is a wise move that should be repeated elsewhere.

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