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A Blueprint for Getting Out of the Middle East

While maintaining the offshore capacity to act if truly necessary, the U.S. should encourage regional parties to develop their own security system.

An Iraqi neighborhood allegedly liberated after the fall of the Islamic State. Credit: Lena Ha/Shutterstock

America’s presence in Afghanistan is set to finally end. Despite desperate attempts by the bipartisan war lobby to extend Washington’s role, President Joe Biden appears determined to bring 20 years of costly effort and tragic failure to a close.

However, he shouldn’t stop there. The U.S. should remove its military forces from the Middle East. The arguments of decades past for their presence have expired. The artificial balance of power created by the U.S. has resulted in both moral and military hazards. America’s foreign policy should finally change to reflect new circumstances.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared that the U.S. would go to war in the Middle East, a policy which his successors tragically followed. Biden was part of that militaristic consensus, serving in his second Senate term when Carter was president.

Now, however, Biden has an opportunity to set a new course. He should permanently downgrade the region’s importance and halt the disastrous era of “endless war.” Afghanistan should be only the start. The U.S. is fighting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq for no good reason. As well as sanctioning and illegally occupying much of Syria, also against America’s interests. Worse, the administration is continuing to aid Saudi Arabia in some degree in Yemen. And more.

The importance of the Persian Gulf long has been exaggerated. While claiming that access to its abundant energy resources was vital, Washington routinely interfered with the market, imposing embargoes and sanctions on oil producers. U.S. military action also destabilized the region, roiling petroleum markets. However, the world economy always adapted. Local revolutions mattered even less, since whoever ended up controlling energy-rich nations usually had an interest in continuing to sell oil.

The Cold War added a unique twist, which helped prompt the Carter Doctrine. The Soviet Union, it was believed, might seek to conquer the region and withhold oil from the West, thereby crippling the latter’s economies and militaries. Although that would have been no easy feat, Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan spurred fears in Washington. Of course, Carter’s paranoid nightmare is now appropriately confined to history’s trash can.

There is still concern that someone else might halt oil sales, most obviously by blocking the straits. However, that would be difficult for anyone in the region to maintain, and most are oil producers who want traffic to flow. Today’s “rogue” nations and groups—Iran, Yemeni Houthis, Syria—have or are seeking control of oil they would like to sell. Even the Islamic State, while seeking to create its “caliphate,” marketed stolen petroleum. Only Tehran is a serious candidate for attempting to close the Gulf to oil traffic, but then the U.S. would have only itself to blame, since such an action almost certainly would be retaliation for American attacks on Iran. In truth, maladroit U.S. policies pose the greatest threat to oil markets.

Moreover, the importance of Gulf energy is much reduced from decades past. Other sources of supply have emerged; fracking transformed America into an energy superpower and exporter. Future demand will be slowed by the push for renewable energy and other climate change measures. Any single producer might be able to affect prices but would lack the ability to wreck the international economy, which has even survived the debilitating impact of Washington’s blundering sanctions and wars.

Other nations, some more dependent than America on Gulf oil, still might worry about their access. Europe, India, and China all want a secure energy supply. If so, let them act to protect their interests—they could organize cooperative action akin to anti-piracy patrols deployed elsewhere.

The other commonly cited cause for America garrisoning the Mideast is Israel. However, Washington’s defense policy should be about protecting the U.S., not other nations. Although some Americans identify with Israel, America’s defense doesn’t depend on Israel’s status. Indeed, U.S. policy toward Israel is almost entirely about domestic politics, not international imperatives.

However, even if nearly six decades of harsh occupation over millions of Palestinians was of no concern, Israel doesn’t need U.S. backing. The vulnerability shown by the early Israeli state long ago disappeared. Israel is a regional superpower, possessing nuclear weapons and the Mideast’s best conventional military. Israel needs neither aid payments nor security guarantees from Washington. It can defend itself from foreign threats. Its greatest challenge today is internal: to remain democratic while denying Palestinians statehood.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a particularly good example of how U.S. interests have been severely damaged by catering to the whims of supposedly vital allies. Under the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has actively undermined American interests even as MbS has become increasingly oppressive, aggressive, and reckless: invading Yemen, kidnapping Lebanon’s premier, underwriting jihadist insurgents in Syria, promoting authoritarian regimes in Bahrain and Egypt, imprisoning his own people, and more. President Donald Trump even sent extra troops to act like the Saudis’ royal bodyguards. The only good result came after he refused to respond to Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities. Washington’s restraint led Riyadh to engage in talks with Tehran, a benefit of refusing to make every Mideast problem America’s own.

A potpourri of other less important concerns are expressed in response to proposals for even a limited American exit. Yet most of them, most importantly terrorism and instability, are largely consequences of U.S. interventionBlowback is real, and it has exacted a high price for promiscuous meddling abroad. If you make a habit of whacking hornets’ nests, you likely will get stung.

Moreover, the Iraq invasion is the most destabilizing event of at least the last four decades (going back to the Iranian revolution) or perhaps even seven decades (reaching back to the creation of Israel). America’s intervention in Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan have had major impacts as well. Indeed, on almost any measurement the U.S. is the most destabilizing power in the region by far.

No doubt, getting out of the Middle East would be controversial. However, Eugene Gholz has authored a new study for the Quincy Institute making the case for disengagement: “Nothing much to do: Why America can Bring All troops Home from the Middle East.” Although a complete withdrawal would not be without consequence or difficulty, Gholz demonstrates why it would still be the best policy for America.

His premise is simple: “U.S. interests in the Middle East are often defined expansively, contributing to an overinflation of the perceived need for a large U.S. military footprint. While justifications like countering terrorism, defending Israel, preventing nuclear proliferation, preserving stability, and protecting human rights deserve consideration, none merit the current level of U.S. troops in the region; in some cases, the presence of the U.S. military actually undermines these concerns.”

Of course, his proposal sets off shrieks of horror in Washington. What if Russia and China sought a larger role? They might, but to what end? Moscow appears to have learned from its Afghan debacle and limited its foreign commitments. For instance, Moscow’s ties with Syria go back decades.

Beijing is primarily concerned with commercial advantage. Despite his brutality at home, Xi Jinping has shown no interest in engaging in wasteful American-style imperial warfare that is almost all cost and no benefit. Give the Chinese credit: They are far more disciplined than America’s leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, and are cognizant of what is actually in their nation’s interest.

In any case, Washington has consistently found regional hegemony to be a losing game. Beijing and Moscow would likely do no better. Gholz noted that “neither has the capability to overcome the obstacles that made U.S. military operations in the region so difficult and costly.”

He figures four countries in the region—Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—might seek to dominate the Mideast, but almost certainly would fall short. Today these countries balance each other in complex ways. To try to subjugate the others would be a war too far. As Gholz put it: “None of the four potential contenders in the Middle East has the requisite capabilities, and none has the plausible potential to rapidly acquire these capabilities in a way that would give it a relative advantage over its opponents.”

Nor is there any obvious coalition that might form to establish hegemony. Iraq and Iran, two majority Shia countries, have extensive contacts but are very different. Baghdad is much more open domestically and leans more to the West; growing nationalist feeling in Iraq has spurred calls for abandoning sectarian politics and limiting Iranian influence. Although the two countries communicate extensively, the two governments share little in common.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both majority-Sunni states but have been adversaries in recent years. Indeed, Ankara deployed troops to Qatar in mid-2017 to block apparent Saudi plans to invade its small neighbor. The fickleness of Mideast friendships is evident from the recent breakdown in relations between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, once highlighted by the personal tie between their respective crown princes. However, relations have frayed as UAE sought to advance its interests by acting independently and sometimes against Riyadh’s policies.

If the U.S. really wants peace in the Middle East, it should stop getting entangled in bitter but ultimately meaningless Mideast conflicts. The problem goes back decades. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made his greatest mistake and sent U.S. troops into the Lebanese civil war, hosting a score of warring factions. There was little the Marines could achieve before being driven out by the embassy and barracks bombings. During the 1980s, Washington backed Iraq’s Sunni dictator against Iran, providing intelligence, aiding development of chemical weapons, and protecting Kuwaiti oil traffic that helped fund Baghdad’s war.

The Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations all later warred against Iraq, empowering Iran. That led to threats and sanctions against Tehran, followed by the Obama reversal to negotiations. Yet the Obama and Trump administrations then showed shocking subservience to Riyadh, backing its murderous war against Yemen to salve the hurt feelings of the royals that the U.S. had made a deal with Iran. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kowtowed even deeper, demonstrating shameful obeisance to the Saudis while running interference for Mohammed bin Salman’s gruesome murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi and continually putting the Saudi regime’s interests before those of the American people.

So shameless was the behavior of the Trump administration, which claimed to represent “America first,” that critics speculated personal corruption was to blame. After all, the Saudis seemed to buy everything they wanted, including U.S. military personnel to act as their bodyguards. Yet nothing has changed under Joe Biden. After promising to treat the Saudi regime as a pariah, the Biden administration reversed course and appears to be back to business-as-usual with the monarchy. MbS’s brother, the deputy defense minister, arrived this week in Washington for an unpublicized visit. Despite negotiating to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. is seeking to defend an unnecessary garrison in Iraq by bombing Iraqi militias allied with Iran. Washington cannot win this is sectarian game.

America’s experience backs Gholz’s argument that current U.S. strategy is harmful. As he explained: “Decades of U.S. military presence in the region have contributed to an artificial power imbalance. States that align with the United States feel they can rely on the guarantee of U.S. military might, while those deemed hostile must fear the possibility of invasion and regime change. The U.S. role influences the behavior of both: U.S. partners act with aggressive impunity, while U.S. adversaries seek avenues of resistance, including arming non-state militias and proxy forces. Rather than contributing to stability, the large presence of the U.S. military undermines U.S. interests by contributing to instability, which in turn can enmesh the United States in additional conflicts.”

Obviously, withdrawal should be responsible, which means allowing countries dependent on the U.S. to adapt. Gholz suggests informing countries which host U.S. troops so they can begin preparing. However, withdrawal should not be made contingent on a stability that the Mideast rarely has had, especially since allied states then would have an incentive to foment conflict to get Washington to stay. While maintaining the offshore capacity to act militarily, if truly necessary, the U.S. should encourage regional parties to develop their own security system, which would require confronting their many grievances against one another.

That wouldn’t be easy, of course. However, the Iran-Saudi contacts and Gulf State overtures to Syria are evidence of what might be if Washington gets out of the way. Greater stability and peace without U.S. military garrisons. “Presence is not deterrence, nor is deterrence the only way to protect U.S. interests,” argued Gholz. If Biden can end America’s 20-year-participation in an unnecessary war, why not also end America’s 40-year occupation of a region of ever decreasing importance?

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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