Home/Daniel Larison/The U.S. Can and Should ‘Escape’ from the Middle East

The U.S. Can and Should ‘Escape’ from the Middle East

The Quincy Institute’s Adam Wunische does a fine job dissecting the flaws in Yaroslav Trofimov’s latest article on the U.S. and the Middle East:

These stale arguments claim there will be consequences of leaving while conveniently ignoring the consequences of staying, which of course are far from trivial. For example, veteran suicide is an epedemic and military spending to perpetuate U.S. primacy continues at unecessarily high rates. The presence of U.S. soldiers in these complex conflicts can even draw us into more unnecessary wars. The United States can engage the world in ways that don’t induce the security dilemma to undermine our own security; reduce our military presence in the Middle East, engage Iran and other states in the region diplomatically and economically, and don’t walk away from already agreed upon diplomatic arraignments that are favorable to all parties involved.

There are always trade-offs with any foreign policy decision, but as Wunische says later “not all interests are equal in severity and importance.” If the U.S. has some interests in the region, they do not require a decades-long obsession and major military commitments. Our policies in the region are horribly matched to the limited importance that the region has for U.S. security and prosperity. We have expended a staggering amount of money, wasted thousands of American lives, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and one would be hard-pressed to identify anything that the U.S. has gained from the effort. To Trofimov’s credit, he does quote some skeptics:

“The United States is over-invested in the Middle East,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, who worked in the State Department during the Obama administration. “Every day, you see people saying that the U.S. is losing Syria, which may be technically true—but Syria is not worth anything…It serves absolutely no purpose for U.S. foreign policy, and if the Russians and the Turks want to divide Syria, why should the U.S. care about it?”

The quote is a good one, but the overall thrust of the piece is to ignore what Shapiro is saying and insist that the U.S. should care very deeply about developments that have little or nothing to do with the U.S. Among other things, the bogus “credibility” argument is used to justify our excessive involvement in the region. At one point, Trofimov cites Michael Oren making one of the more ludicrous claims I have seen about the U.S. role in the region:

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who served until earlier this year as a deputy minister in the Israeli government, recalls meeting recently with an American military delegation and telling them: “If you think the United States as a global power can pull out of the Middle East and not endanger itself, you are deluding yourselves. When America withdraws from the Middle East unilaterally, the Russians internalize this and move into Crimea and Ukraine; the Chinese internalize it and move into the South China Sea and beyond in the Pacific.” Mr. Oren added, “The Middle East is viewed by the world as a litmus test of American power.”

I hope that our military delegation ignored Oren’s comments, because he couldn’t be more wrong. It is helpful when hawks talk about “credibility” in these terms. It reminds us that they don’t understand how it works, and it shows that they will make the most irrational arguments to maintain the fiction that refusing to start wars or withdrawing from current wars of choice encourages aggressive behavior by states in completely different parts of the world. Oren’s argument makes no sense on its face. Why would a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East encourage Russia and China to become more aggressive toward their neighbors? Withdrawing from the Middle East would free up manpower and resources that could be used in Europe or Asia. When the U.S. gives up on unnecessary wars, that means that our government is no longer frittering away resources and lives. It is more likely that Russia and China have been taking advantage of the situation while America remains mired in pointless wars in the Middle East.

It is even more likely that Russia and China are pursuing their own interests in their immediate neighborhoods, and their actions are not being driven by what the U.S. is or isn’t doing in some other part of the world. Russia had its own reasons for intervening in Ukraine, and they were driven entirely by events in Ukraine and Russia’s view of its interests there. China has been steadily moving into the South China Sea for decades, and it will continue doing so whether the U.S. garrisons parts of the Middle East forever or not. As much as it annoys hawks to admit this, other states have their own agency and many things happen in the world that are unrelated to what the U.S. does or doesn’t do. Hawks have to fall back on these silly “credibility” claims because the arguments for continuing the current level of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East are so unpersuasive. Do our commitments in the region actually make the U.S. more secure, or do they drain our resources and create new enemies? That is the question that needs answering, and I think it is pretty clear that the latter is the right answer. The idea that the U.S. has to remain bogged down everywhere for fear of encouraging aggression anywhere is bankrupt and thoroughly discredited, but that doesn’t stop it from being used again and again to rationalize our absurd policies in the Middle East.

The need to support “allies” that aren’t really allies also comes up in the article:

Events in the region are also widely viewed as a litmus test of the value of American friendship. Russia, for one, is winning the argument that it can be a much more reliable ally. Moscow has stood with its brutal client, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and helped him to win his country’s civil war. The U.S., by contrast, has discarded a number of allies, such as Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak amid the pro-democracy protests of 2011.

Russia has proven itself to be a reliable patron for the Syrian government, but much like the claim about “losing Syria” the appropriate response is: so what? Instead of worrying about whether client states think the U.S. is reliable, why don’t we ask whether the clients are worth supporting? The U.S. has usually supported its clients and given them carte blanche. Just look at the ongoing horror resulting from our support for the war on Yemen. In the case of Egypt, “discarding” Mubarak has been followed by acquiescing in a military coup and supporting Sisi’s dictatorship almost without reservation. So much for “discarding” Egypt. The problem here is that the U.S. has been unwilling to cut off clients, and our government caters to them and indulges them far too much. And why should we treat events in the Middle East as “a litmus test of the value of American friendship”? Why wouldn’t we look to U.S. relations with genuine treaty allies if we want to see what the value of our friendship is?

It simply isn’t true that the U.S. “can’t escape” the Middle East. The U.S. is like a prisoner sitting in a cell of his own making, and he has convinced himself that he cannot leave even though he is not bound and there is no door to the cell. The prisoner tells himself that he has to stay for fear of what might happen in his absence, and so he condemns himself to remain there. He is desperately worried that someone else might take his place in the cell, and he doesn’t want to be accused of “losing” his prison. Just think of the damage to his credibility!

There are undoubtedly some vested interests in the U.S. and in our client states that don’t want the U.S. to “escape,” but that is a different story. Like industries that capture the agencies meant to regulate them, our clients have captured our policymakers and they have convinced them to conflate the clients’ interests with ours. Saying that the region still “matters a great deal” to the U.S. isn’t supported by the evidence. Our leaders have convinced themselves that they “can’t” leave any of these unnecessary commitments, but these commitments are not ends in themselves and shouldn’t be perpetuated for their own sake. The U.S. could significantly reduce its military presence in the region and scale back our support for these clients without doing harm to our vital interests because our interests in the region are at most peripheral and limited.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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