Daniel Benaim and Michael Walid Hanna explain that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East hasn’t changed much at all under Trump, but there has been a reduction in diplomatic engagement:
For all the headlines, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East is fairly consistent. Despite the administration’s intention, laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, to refocus the U.S. military on great-power competition, the U.S. footprint in the Middle East remains relatively constant, and seemingly permanent. Instead, what has changed is the scale of civilian effort that, in most previous administrations, would have accompanied such a military presence. The Trump administration has left numerous vacancies for key civilian positions unfilled for long stretches, slashed aid programs, and focused on high-level personal relations at the expense of broader ties. Altogether, its approach has not been typified by either retrenchment or interventionism but by what Barry Posen, writing in Foreign Affairs, has called “illiberal hegemony”—military superiority shorn of diplomatic stewardship.
Benaim and Hanna are right about this, and their article is a welcome corrective to the many false claims that Trump is “retreating” from the region. The administration’s disdain for diplomacy and aid has been impossible to miss over the last two and a half years, and they have combined that with more or less continuing the military deployments and missions that they inherited. What that means in practice is that the U.S. remains entangled in the affairs of the region, but our government’s involvement leans even more heavily towards the military. That leaves every other kind of engagement underfunded, understaffed, and neglected. Since our foreign policy is already excessively militarized, this makes a bad problem worse. Benaim and Hanna note this later in the article:
This approach also exacerbates the long-standing problem of overreliance on the military as the central tool of U.S. Middle East policy. Even on a diplomat’s best days, regional leaders are well aware of the “consul effect”—the contrast between well-resourced American military commanders and their relatively impoverished diplomatic colleagues. Further marginalizing diplomats costs them influence, access, and bargaining power, while positioning the military and intelligence communities as the only effective U.S. institutional actors in the region.
Given the reality that the U.S. military presence hasn’t been reduced, and has actually increased in some places over the last two years, how is it that we keep hearing about U.S. “retreat” and “withdrawal” as if these were happening? Client states have an incentive to whine about possible “abandonment” no matter what the U.S. does. Either they complain about an “abandonment” that has supposedly already happened, or they warn against a possible “abandonment” that might take place in the future. The whining serves the purpose of putting pressure on every administration to maintain existing commitments and then to add more. Then there are pundits and analysts at home that constantly fret about U.S. “withdrawal” as a way of agitating for increased involvement. Then there are the supporters of the president that want to pretend that the “withdrawal” is really happening in order to credit the president for doing something he hasn’t done. Add them all up, and you get an unfounded consensus that the U.S. is “retreating” when virtually nothing has changed. In the case of Trump, there is an additional factor of taking the president’s rhetoric at face value while ignoring what his administration is doing. Trump boasts about some things that never happened and never will happen, and for some reason he is blamed/credited for things he never does while his real policies often escape close scrutiny.
Put simply, U.S. military engagement in the Middle East is largely unchanged and has even escalated to some degree under Trump, but all other kinds of engagement get short shrift. Far from disentangling the U.S. from its excessive commitments in the region, Trump has embraced our worst clients and deepened our government’s involvement in the worst way for the sake of arms sales and whipping up anti-Iranian sentiment. This is the exact opposite of what should be happening, and it is antithetical to a foreign policy that extricates U.S. forces from the region.