Table of Contents
- US interests in the Middle East
- Threats to US regional interests
- US policies and presence
- Proposed policy changes
My colleagues at the New American Engagement Initiative argue in their latest publication that the United States has limited interests in the Middle East, that the threats to those limited interests are minimal and can be managed from afar, that the US military presence there is largely counterproductive and unsustainable, and that a sharp reduction in US military forces in the region would enhance security and allow for improved US diplomacy.
Unfortunately, none of these arguments hold up to scrutiny. Indeed, taken together their preferred policies would be tantamount to a general US withdrawal from the Middle East—and would undoubtedly be seen as such by all regional actors.
At the foundation of their viewpoint, however, is a core truth. The authors are entirely correct in concluding that “costly and inconclusive US wars in the Greater Middle East have produced neither peace nor stability.” Given that recent experience, US public sentiment against what many characterize as “endless wars” has reached a new pinnacle, and thus political leaders of both parties are increasingly receptive to the kinds of calls for withdrawal that have been made for many decades. Yet underlying those calls is a fundamental misunderstanding of US history in the region, which results in a flawed set of recommendations for the future. Let’s review each argument in turn.
US interests in the Middle East
The authors assert that “the Greater Middle East holds limited interests for US national security” because historical assumptions have been “upended by new realities.” In order to assess this argument, it is necessary to enumerate those national security interests, which are more extensive than the authors describe. US interests have remained consistent over time:
- ensuring that the region’s vital energy resources continue to be extracted and shipped safely around the world, driven by market demand rather than mercantilism
- supporting a delicate balance of power that promotes regional stability and protects US allies, especially Israel
- thwarting adversaries, particularly peer competitors, from expanding harmful influence in the region and undermining US goals
- disrupting terrorist threats to Americans and US partners
- preventing the regional proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
- encouraging bilateral trade and economic prosperity, which have indirect positive effects on the other interests
It’s important to note that my colleagues’ arguments don’t include any of the important values-based interests that many others contend should be central to US policies in the region. These include promoting democratic transitions, advancing human rights, combating corruption, providing humanitarian relief, and ending local military conflicts. These omissions are notable, as it would strain credulity to assert that the United States would be well positioned to influence these interests after being seen as withdrawing from the region.
The authors correctly acknowledge that “countering jihadi insurgency might be an area of more continuity than change,” but are silent about the threat that regional weapons of mass destruction might upend the delicate balance of power—except to note Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The piece includes vague references to “vastly altered” economic circumstances and “radical” economic change, but nothing about US interests in trade and encouraging regional prosperity. After noting in passing a few benefits from the US security relationship with Israel, the authors overrate the degree of Israeli self-sufficiency—which would of course be news to Israeli officials who just welcomed US President Joe Biden’s promise to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system in the wake of Hamas firing over four thousand rockets that targeted civilians.
Notwithstanding these oversights, the authors are right to focus on energy, since as they correctly note, “access to hydrocarbons has been a primary driver of US policy toward the Middle East.” However, they incorrectly date the beginning of this dynamic to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo when in fact it has been the dominant factor at least since 1945, when US President Franklin Roosevelt met Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud on the USS Quincy. Moreover, they state that this policy was first “codified” by the Carter Doctrine in 1980, and thus minimize the importance of the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957. In fact, US policy on this subject has a long, consistent, bipartisan heritage, reaffirmed by administration after administration.
Like many others, they vastly overplay the implications of increases in US domestic energy production, especially for the coming decades. Of course, the overly hyped, newfound “US energy independence” still requires the nation to be the world’s second-largest importer of foreign oil. The US shale revolution is real and highly beneficial to segments of the US economy, has impact far beyond US shores, and presents important strategic implications for US security. But it is an exaggeration to claim that it has already “transformed the geopolitics of energy.”
Ironically, the shale revolution’s most positive strategic effect is one that isn’t often considered. In the case of war, the United States now has the ability to shift to autarky if necessary to power its economy and military, no matter how enormously expensive that shift might be. The transition would be painful and slow, since many US refineries aren’t set up for the domestic crude slate—hence the continued imports—and would require time and resources to be retooled in an emergency. Yet in the end, no enemy can hope to entirely cut off US energy for an extended period of time, as the United States did to Japan in the lead up to World War II. Of course, the same cannot be said for US allies that are not similarly blessed with indigenous energy resources—most notably some of the Quad nations that are central to the emerging great power competition with China. This is more than a minor problem.
The authors make three other arguments relating to energy: that the Western Hemisphere, rather than the Greater Middle East, is becoming “the center of gravity of global hydrocarbon production”; that global supply disruptions, and the price fluctuations that ensue, “have been minimal”; and that “the world is at the beginning of a transition to a post-petroleum economy.” These are overstatements, at best.
In fact, according to the US Energy Information Administration, last year the nations of the Western Hemisphere produced about the same amount of oil as the nations of the Greater Middle East: just over 32.5 billion barrels of oil per day compared to just over 30 billion. (Complicating the distinction further, Venezuela, one of the hemisphere’s larger producers, is a member of the Gulf-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and Ecuador has historically vacillated between joining and quitting the organization.) This rough parity was achieved while sanctions on Iran, instability in Iraq, and chaos in Libya kept a substantial percentage of Middle Eastern production offline. Looking ahead, the debt-driven model of US oil production (but not that of national oil companies) is under increasing scrutiny from major banks, which are raising their environmental lending criteria. Taken together, this hardly supports the implication that the Western Hemisphere is becoming more important than the Middle East in global oil markets.
Moreover, in contrast to a prediction made by one of the authors back in 2014 (and cited again in this most recent publication), it has not been the case that “growing US oil production will diminish OPEC’s role in determining prices and perhaps the traditional Saudi role as the swing producer.” Instead, two years after that earlier report was written, Russia led ten additional oil exporting countries to cooperate with OPEC through the OPEC+ grouping, which includes another Western Hemisphere state, Mexico. Rather than diminishing the cartel’s role in determining prices, US production encouraged the cartel to expand.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia remains the world’s swing producer, with enormous power to influence global prices. This was demonstrably proven just last year when an oil-price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, sending prices into unprecedented negative territory. The result was a painful win for Riyadh and a loss for Moscow. Such supply disruptions and price shifts cannot reasonably be described as “minimal.”
Furthermore, while the long-term growth in alternative energy production is something everyone should celebrate, it’s also important not to overstate this complicated dynamic, especially in the context of making US national security assessments. Oil remains the most important global energy source, representing over one-third of energy consumption. Even under the more optimistic assumptions, oil is likely to long persist as a crucial part of the US energy mix for as far as experts can confidently project.
To highlight just one of many complications for those who would like to leave the impression that a “post-petroleum economy” is coming soon, consider international transportation. Security and economic strength, both for the United States and its partners and allies, depend on moving goods and people across oceans. It will take quite some time, however, for the cargo shipping and air travel industries to see at-scale alternatives to petroleum.
Even after global demand is expected to peak, the global oil industry will still need to expand production to meet demand in two decades, as McKinsey projects. Because of inherent differences in production costs, even after global production begins to decline, the OPEC countries in general and its Middle East members in particular will take growing market share. At some point in the distant future, the world’s energy mix will no longer require disproportionate attention to the oil resources of the Middle East. But that time is not today.
Threats to US regional interests
Having established that US interests have not yet been “upended by new realities,” national security professionals must assess the threats to those interests. Unfortunately, geography still matters. Of the world’s eight primary maritime choke points, three are in the Middle East. While the Suez Canal remains secure—though demographics suggest challenges for the long-term stability of Egypt—the vast majority of the region’s vital energy resources has to move through the more vulnerable Strait of Hormuz or the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. It is painfully easy to disrupt the movement of tankers through these narrow corridors, and Iran has both built specific capabilities for this mission and repeatedly threatened to use them. A recent accident in the Suez Canal disrupted trade for less than a week, but the ramifications were felt globally. A war could keep these choke points closed even longer.
While Americans might prefer to be a free rider under a costless security regime enforced by someone else, no other benevolent nation has emerged that might harmlessly replace the United States. Rather than serving as a guarantor of freedom of navigation, a China-dominated local maritime security regime would undoubtedly take a mercantilist approach, leveraging energy flows to Beijing’s own benefit.
The threat to US nonproliferation interests has never been more prominent, with increasing Iranian nuclear stockpiles driving the Biden administration to seek a negotiated return to the Obama administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement. Watching closely is Saudi Arabia, which has vowed to develop a nuclear bomb if Iran does. At such a point one should expect all capable nations in the region to follow suit. This threat, which has been at the center of US security policy toward the region for three consecutive administrations, is absent from my colleagues’ analysis.
Their piece acknowledges that “Israel’s principal external threat is Iran,” but they appear to dismiss that threat when arguing that Iran is “currently mired in a COVID-19 crisis and has a frail economy.” They seem to suggest that the reported dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran will somehow result in diminishing the Iranian threat to Israel—a conclusion that I have not heard from any Israeli or Saudi official. In fact, Iran continues to call for Israel’s destruction, and has developed and deployed military capabilities to threaten Israel either directly from Syria or indirectly through support, armaments, and guidance provided to both Hamas and Hezbollah. According to reports, Israel has assessed that Iran is two years away from having a nuclear weapon, should it decide to develop one. While my colleagues correctly note that “a two-state solution remains a vital Israeli interest,” they assert that “Israel has the power to achieve such a solution.” This view is not shared even by the strongest Israeli advocates for a two-state solution, who instead assess that “reaching two states has . . . never seemed farther away.”
Finally, my colleagues argue that “for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to envision a hegemonic power emerging” in the region. Iran is working toward exactly that end, unfortunately, seeking to expand its “Lebanonization” model to Syria and Iraq. At the same time, Iran has given its nonstate Yemeni partner a cross-border rocket capability—a practice that is typical for Iran but shared by no other major international actor—and recently demonstrated its own ability and willingness to directly attack Saudi Arabia. Iran’s leadership has been clear in its strategic objective to drive the United States out of the region, which it correctly views as a necessary precondition for Tehran to achieve its hegemonic goals. Furthermore, Russia and Turkey each has longstanding regional aspirations, and each has successfully expanded its ability to project power in recent years, in the context of the widespread perception of a coming US withdrawal.
US policies and presence
A fundamental misreading of history is evident in my colleagues’ argument that “US posture and policy toward the Middle East has been largely unchanged for decades.” On the contrary, while US policies toward the region had been remarkably consistent from 1953 to 2003, they were then intentionally reversed. For five decades, across both Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States was deeply engaged in the Middle East, diplomatically and militarily, though generally in its role as a classic status quo power. When confronted with the Middle East crisis of the moment, US objectives were usually not much more than to preserve an inherently fragile balance of power or to force its return after it had been upended. Threats were intended to be contained rather than eliminated, disputes were resolved largely through difficult negotiations, and it was accepted that progress would need to be incremental and not revolutionary.
During this period some Americans consistently called for a more transformative approach to the region, while others consistently bemoaned the disproportionate attention and resources that the region always demanded given its inherent instability. The former group argued for regime change and the latter group argued for withdrawal. For fifty years, neither group’s views became US policy.
Since 2003, however, consecutive US presidents made clear, conscious breaks from this tradition, seeking to challenge the regional status quo rather than reinforce it. Each did so in a different manner but ironically to similar effect. President George W. Bush did so by launching an unnecessary war to achieve regime change in Iraq and revolutionary reform more widely. President Barack Obama did so by distancing the United States from its traditional regional partners and allowing Russian power to return to the region. President Donald Trump did so by seeking to cripple the regime in Iran while at the same time publicly undermining, through actions and inactions, the US commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and the security of the region’s energy infrastructure.
Assessing these various departures from tradition together, the region already perceives the United States as ready to withdraw, which is now the most immediate single threat to the status quo. As a result, those who threaten US interests have expanded their ability to project power in the region, and those who support US interests are hedging against a US withdrawal by building and using their own military capabilities and by establishing new relationships with the newly expanding powers. These negative dynamics are being driven by the mere perception of impending US withdrawal; they would be accelerated if such a withdrawal became a reality.
Thus, rather than an “unchanged” US policy driving poor outcomes, the very opposite has been the case—to the detriment of the region and US interests. For many years, I have been arguing that the United States should seek to return to its previous, generally successful strategy toward the Middle East. The strategy proposed by my colleagues, reflecting a much older critique of the previous US policy, would go much further, beyond even the positions taken by President Trump. Indeed, while they avoid using the term directly, it would amount to a general withdrawal from the region.
My colleagues assert that the US presence in the region must be made more “sustainable” for several reasons: the financial and opportunity costs for the US military are unbearably high; the military presence in the region inspires anti-US views in host countries; the physical presence has not prevented regional conflict; and, implicitly, that radically reducing that presence would be popular with the American public. These views may appear reasonable at first glance, especially in the context of widespread frustration with “endless wars.” Yet once again, these positions do not survive scrutiny.
Let’s start with the observation that “the United States continues to station tens of thousands of troops in the Greater Middle East.” Context is critical: the US military consists of roughly 1.4 million active personnel and another roughly 850,000 reservists, for a total of about 2.25 million personnel. While the exact number of US military personnel based in the region is typically classified and routinely changes (and my colleagues don’t cite a number), a generous estimate is sixty thousand people. That would be less than 3 percent of total US military personnel. Many of them live and work on military bases that are substantially subsidized by the host governments through in-kind support. While it’s perfectly appropriate to debate force posture changes on the margins as requirements change—just as the Biden administration has recently done—a reasonable top-line analysis would therefore conclude that these overall numbers are both entirely sustainable and proportionate to US interests.
Nevertheless, my colleagues want to sharply cut US forces in the region—though they notably do not identify any preferred floor for the American force posture there—because, in part, this presence stokes “anger and resentment toward US forces in the region.” Certainly, the US occupation of Iraq and large US military deployments to Afghanistan sparked this type of reaction, as virtually all such campaigns do. (This was one of many reasons why, prior to 2003, US presidents sought to avoid such campaigns.) Now, however, these campaigns are over. The US presence has decreased to 2,500 in Iraq from 115,000 troops in 2009. All US forces are in the process of leaving Afghanistan, down from 100,000 troops in 2011. Today, the permanent US military bases in the region are largely in countries along vital waterways, such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and across the strait in Djibouti. None of these countries are experiencing significant anti-US movements.
My colleagues make a similar categorical error when they write that 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.” It’s true that Iraq continues to suffer from the legacy of the US invasion in 2003—once again, a mistaken reversal of long-standing US policies—and from a concerted, continuing effort by the Iranian military to undermine its still fledgling representative government. Yet there are zero permanent US bases in the other countries that my colleagues list.
A modest number of US special operations forces have been present in these countries on limited counterterrorism missions, but it is exactly those types of indirect actions that my colleagues previously said they supported. It seems hardly reasonable to then complain that those units have failed to “avert near-state failure,” something far beyond their mission objectives. In contrast, most countries in the region that host significant numbers of US military personnel on permanent bases have been comparable models of stability.
Furthermore, my colleagues’ analysis fails the Sherlock Holmes “dog that didn’t bark” test. It ascribes no value to the deterrent function that the permanent US presence provides, notwithstanding the fact that virtually every US administration and every US partner in the area believes that this presence has protected freedom of navigation and helped prevent a wider regional war in the Gulf. Given Iran’s open threats against freedom of navigation, recent history of targeting commercial shipping, and aggressive use of regional proxy warfare where US deterrent forces are absent, it would be difficult to conclude that US deterrence is valueless in the Gulf.
Finally, while noting that the “US public is unenthusiastic about involvement in new wars,” my colleagues leave the implication that this “lack of appetite for more conflict” means that the public would support a military withdrawal. According to a poll done last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, however, the US public is able to reject both the path taken in 2003 and current calls for withdrawal. A clear majority of those polled said the US regional military presence should be maintained (45 percent) or increased (29 percent), while just under a quarter (24 percent) thought it should be decreased. A majority specifically supported long-term military bases in Iraq (55 percent, up from 41 percent in 2014) and in Kuwait (57 percent, up from 47 percent in 2014). Moreover, because of widely held concerns about terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program, a majority (61 percent), still saw the Middle East as the region most important to US security interests, far outranking Europe (15 percent), Asia (12 percent), or Latin America (7 percent).
Proposed policy changes
Rather than argue for a return to pre-2003 policies, which often involved restraint but also typically required consistent US presence and leadership, the authors advocate instead for a radical military withdrawal that would inevitably have much wider implications. They state that their proposals “might strike some as dramatic.” In this case, it can be argued, “some” would include all long-standing US regional partners and the vast majority of US national security professionals, both Democratic and Republican, who have worked on the region for decades.
My colleagues’ specific recommendations include the following (I have bolded some parts for emphasis):
- “substantially reduce the number of US forces permanently stationed in the region,” including a call to “end or reduce the permanent deployment of forces to Kuwait . . . as well as in other major bases in Iraq, Bahrain, and Oman”
- “scale down or eliminate routine US Navy deployments” including the “anachronistic requirement to maintain a US carrier battle group”
- “terminate routine overflights in the region” and “close many of the associated bases that support these operations”
Make no mistake: this is a call to repeal the Carter Doctrine, shut down the US Fifth Fleet (headquartered in Bahrain), and eliminate much of the infrastructure, built over more than half a century, that allows the United States the placement and access required to protect US national security interests. This would be no mere redeployment or retrenchment. It’s an argument for ending the routine projection of US power into the region through the air and over the seas, and removing all US military personnel stationed within key partner nations, regardless of the preferences of their leaders. No matter how artfully described, such a policy would be immediately and correctly recognized by all regional leaders as a general US withdrawal.
At that point, the biggest flaw in this plan would become immediately evident. The authors assert that, in order to protect US interests, the United States should then make “greater investments in intelligence and early warning,” seek “close coordination with regional states,” and engage in “robust diplomacy.” While these are worthy goals, in the context of a general withdrawal they are entirely unrealistic.
My colleagues assume that our relationships with host country policymakers and security-sector officials would freeze in place and remain after departure. They assign zero value to the day-to-day interactions between US forces and intelligence professionals, the influence this allows the United States to wield, and the atmospherics that can be gathered as a result. They ignore the criticality of military relationship building and how the strength of those relationships transfers into improved interoperability and common strategic perspectives. They ascribe limited agency to US partners, assuming that these partners will not feel abandoned by the United States and seek out alternative arrangements to meet their security needs. You can surge a lot of things, but as Admiral William McRaven has said, “you can’t surge trust.”
Furthermore, the calls for greater reliance on diplomacy in the region would come as a surprise to almost every modern US president—with Trump, perhaps, the sole exception—and their secretaries of state, each of whom dedicated disproportionate time to exactly that. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton became the personal action officers for diplomacy at Camp David between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and the Palestinians, respectively. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger first made an art of “shuttle diplomacy” in the region, and Secretaries James Baker and John Kerry proudly boasted of the number of trips they had taken there. President George H. W. Bush spent countless hours on the personal diplomacy necessary to build a coalition to liberate Kuwait, and thus restore the status quo, while his son, who upended that status quo, had regular personal calls with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This diplomacy was possible only in the wider context of American military strength, a self-evident linkage of hard power and diplomatic prowess. Now that Russia has reentered the region militarily, it too has successfully leveraged its newfound position for its diplomatic ends. At the same time, former regional powers that have long since withdrawn militarily do not tend to find themselves at the center of regional diplomacy. A simple trade-off seeking to replace military power with diplomatic power is wishful thinking, at best.
This approach is particularly infeasible when applied to US counterterrorism objectives. The authors argue that “adequate counterterrorism capacity can be maintained primarily with more robust access agreements and cooperation from local partners,” without explaining how access agreements are supposed to improve in the context of US withdrawal—or how the United States is supposed to maintain cooperation with people who feel it is in the process of deserting them. The approach assumes, as my colleagues write, that the “threat is mostly local and manageable with only a small, residual US military presence, if that” (emphasis added). In reality, Salafi jihadists have a near-perfect record of shifting to external attacks once they have attained a local sanctuary, and successful indirect action requires the United States to take on more risk, not less.
Similarly, as recent events clearly demonstrate, a requirement for “over the horizon” counterterrorism and “offshore balancing” requires more regional naval presence rather than less. With no shortage of irony, the US departure from Afghanistan has recently necessitated the deployment of the only aircraft carrier based in Asia toward the Middle East. Moreover, since the new policy is to support Afghan national security forces from afar—exactly as my colleagues prefer—it will require the United States to keep more ships and aircraft in the Gulf region, operating out of many of the same bases that the authors want to close.
In the end, there is no win-win scenario when it comes to withdrawal: no way to protect US interests without taking on the necessary costs or risks, and certainly no way to do so and still maintain (or improve!) regional partnerships and US diplomacy.
Which brings us to the last of my colleagues’ recommendations. When the United Kingdom announced its general withdrawal from the area by 1971, it could do so with confidence that the United States would be willing and able to protect freedom of navigation and other common interests. Looking ahead, only China is likely to be in a similar position in the coming decades. Unfortunately, recent Chinese actions strongly suggest that rather than signaling continuity in strategic approach—as the shift from the United Kingdom to the United States did—a reliance on China would represent a more fundamental discontinuity: from free trade to mercantilism.
My colleagues discount this concern, either by dismissing the possibility altogether (by quoting others who refer to this as a “red herring”) or by implying that Asian countries that are otherwise circling each other warily in their own region will decide to work together harmoniously in this theater, since they all have “a strategic interest in the security of the sea lanes through which oil supplies flow.” One of the authors was more explicit back in 2014 (again, cited in the more recent publication), when he wrote that “the administration should explore burden-sharing with… China on sea-lane security.”
Perhaps China would not seek a unilateral capacity to secure its energy resources as it continues to build a modern blue-water navy. Perhaps China would not apply to the Gulf any lessons from its aggressive and norm-breaking approach to the South China Sea. At best, acting on such assumptions would be a tremendous risk to take, but my colleagues unfortunately do not explore the potential downsides. Moreover, if the United States were to withdraw, as the authors propose, we would be left with few options should China later prove to be less benevolent than they seem to anticipate.
My colleagues understate US interests in the Greater Middle East, underestimate the threats to those interests, and overstate the costs associated with the continuing US presence. They seek to conflate a specific, post-2003 strategic US policy failure with the more long-standing and far more successful strategic approach that preceded it. As a result, they wrongly advocate for a radical military withdrawal that would inevitably be perceived by regional partners as an abandonment and sharply decrease US diplomatic influence.
Their policy recommendations are impractical and internally inconsistent. They would put US interests at serious risk. The United States has already greatly reduced its military presence from the peak levels once deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than seek a near-total withdrawal from the region, which would once again upend the status quo, the United States should seek to return to the traditional US role of protecting and restoring that status quo while pushing for incremental improvements in regional security, prosperity, and general welfare.
William F. Wechsler is director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council.
Thu, Oct 31, 2019
How do external powers withdraw from the Middle East? Just as Hemingway described going bankrupt: gradually then suddenly. That was true for the Ottomans, for France, for Britain, and now potentially for America as well. Not long ago this was unthinkable. Now it is not only possible but increasingly likely, and both friends and foes are already actively hedging against this future. The next U.S. president will be our last chance to halt this process.
In the News by
Fri, Sep 18, 2020
Thu, Oct 10, 2019
This chapter is part of an edited volume that gathers analysis on the policy choices pursued by Washington and Moscow in the MENA region and develops case studies of the two powers’ policies in the countries beset by major crises Read the full report here.
Through our Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, the Atlantic Council works with allies and partners in Europe and the wider Middle East to protect US interests, build peace and security, and unlock the human potential of the region.