Home/Daniel Larison/U.S. ‘Disengagement’ from the Middle East Is a Myth

U.S. ‘Disengagement’ from the Middle East Is a Myth

David Ignatius complains about an American “disengagement” from the Middle East that never happened:

Since Otaiba’s remarks, I’ve seen new examples of bad decisions when leaders decide that Uncle Sam doesn’t matter.

Topping the list of this summer’s most significant Middle East mistakes is Saudi Arabia’s move to punish Canada for criticizing human rights policies in the kingdom.

Saudi incompetence in foreign policy is primarily the fault of their own inept de facto ruler, and Ignatius’ complaint about American “disengagement” makes absolutely no sense in this case. The U.S. is as entangled with Saudi Arabia as ever. If anything, the Trump administration has increased and intensified ties with Riyadh over the last eighteen months. When the spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia started, the Trump administration’s response was to treat them both as equally important “allies” when only one of them is actually a treaty ally. This is not the behavior of a government that is “disengaging” from the Middle East. It is what we would expect from a president who is entwined with the Saudis and Emiratis to the detriment of U.S. interests and the region. The Saudi government would be acting recklessly no matter what the U.S. was or wasn’t doing, but there is no question that it has been encouraged to do whatever it wants because the Saudi king and his son know that the Trump administration is backing them to the hilt.

Ignatius’ column belongs to a long, bad tradition of worrying about supposed U.S. “retreat” from other parts of the world while U.S. involvement in other countries’ wars never ends. The word Yemen is notably absent from Ignatius’ hand-wringing, because acknowledging the ongoing U.S. involvement in a terrible war that is causing millions of people to starve would make a mockery of the paired ideas that the U.S. has been “disengaging” and that our “disengagement” would be a bad thing. Foreign policy pundits have been bemoaning American “retreat” from the region for at least the last decade, and yet the U.S. is still ensnared in unnecessary foreign conflicts in Syria and Yemen with no apparent end in sight. I keep hearing about our supposed “disengagement” from the region for years and I have yet to see any evidence that it is actually happening.

Ignatius says that he regrets “the way that decent people and ideas suffer when the umbrella of U.S. hegemony is withdrawn or discarded,” but I honestly have no idea what he’s talking about. Millions of Yemenis are starving and dying of preventable diseases in no small part because the “umbrella of U.S. hegemony” is casting a dreadful shadow over their country. Just a few days ago, dozens of Yemeni children were murdered by a Saudi coalition airstrike using weapons provided to them by the U.S. They were innocents, and they suffered death and injury for no reason except that it pleased U.S. client states to blow up a marketplace full of Yemenis.

U.S.-backed despots lock up their domestic critics, shoot protesters in the streets, and torture detainees without having to fear any loss of support from Washington. Just the other day, the Trump administration released the remaining military aid to Egypt in another sign that our government has no problem with the dictatorship there. The Trump administration aspires to create a new security alliance, a so-called “Arab NATO” that includes the Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan. It is a ridiculous idea that won’t work for many reasons, but it isn’t something that an administration interested in “disengaging” from the region would propose.

U.S. involvement in these countries and its ongoing support for despotic regimes across the region are the cause of suffering for millions upon millions of people, and our government’s influence in this part of the world has been mostly baleful for decades. If Ignatius can recall a time when this was not so, he is more of a foreign policy trilobite than a dinosaur. It would be a good thing for the region if U.S. influence were waning, but it isn’t true. Spinning tales about U.S. “disengagement” is a none-too-subtle way to argue for further deepening U.S. involvement in a part of the world that it keeps wrecking and destabilizing. Now that we have seen the results of decades of what U.S. engagement in this part of the world means in practice, it would be a welcome change for both the U.S. and the countries in the region to have a lot less of it.

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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