With the exception of President George H. W. Bush, every U.S. president since the end of the Cold War has promised American retrenchment from the Middle East. They all have failed to make good on their promises.
Bush 41 understood the importance of American leadership in stabilizing the post-Cold War world. In a speech at West Point on January 5, 1993, he stated, “In the wake of the Cold War, in a world where we are the only remaining superpower, it is the role of the United States to marshal its moral and material resources to promote a democratic peace. It is our responsibility; it is our opportunity to lead. There is no one else.”
Succeeding presidents felt otherwise, at least upon entering office. Bill Clinton came into office promising to focus on the economy, yet he was unwillingly dragged into conflicts in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. Candidate George W. Bush shunned messy overseas commitments, declaring, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” After eight years in office he had used the military to overthrow two regimes, followed by counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In November 2011 after nearly three years in office Barack Obama declared, “The tide of war is receding. Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, where we’ve begun a transition to Afghan security and leadership.” Nine years later, the United States still has troops deployed to both countries, with an additional war begun in Libya and troops deployed in Syria for good measure. Donald Trump also campaigned on ending America’s “forever wars,” deriding Syria as nothing more than “sand and death.” Yet despite his desire to extricate U.S. forces from the Middle East, U.S. troops are still deployed in Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf region.
Why have presidents of both parties, despite their stated willingness to remove U.S. forces from the Middle East, proven unable to do so?
The fact is that promises to reduce the U.S. military presence abroad in order to nation-build at home sell well on the campaign trail, but once in office presidents are confronted with challenges that do not lend themselves to trite slogans or easy solutions. Flashy campaign promises set the stage for foreign policy failure, for in the Middle East, Las Vegas rules do not apply: What happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. Promises of retrenchment poll well, until the realities of migrant displacement, terrorism, and oil shocks cause reconsideration of simplistic policies ungrounded in Middle Eastern realities.
In a recent op-ed, Janan Ganesh put the issue clearly. “The problem, I used to think, is the failure to honour these promises of retrenchment. In truth, the promises are the problem. The US accumulated foreign interests over the course of the 20th century that cannot be divested at speed, at least not without grievous cost, and at least not in a region as intractable as this one. A responsible political class would not pretend otherwise every four years. It would gird voters for a process of extrication that might turn out to be the work of a human lifetime.”1
Here are six reasons why the United States must remain engaged in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
1. Terrorism. In 2011 President Barack Obama opted to allow the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq to lapse, bringing home all of the U.S. forces deployed to that country. His desire was to normalize relations, removing forces that some believed served as an irritant to a smoother U.S.-Iraq relationship. But by removing U.S. forces from Iraq, the Obama administration squandered the leverage those forces created for U.S. interests in the region. High among these interests was the war against Islamist extremists, which did not magically disappear with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. I need not go into the subsequent rise of the Islamic State here, but suffice it to say that Middle Eastern political and security realities intruded on the view of the region held by some in the Obama administration. It turned out the tide of war was not receding, at least not without substantial investment by the United States in stabilizing troubled areas. Now that the Islamic State has been defeated, some in the Trump administration are all too ready to make the same mistake, believing that the war is over and the troops can now come home. Such hubris ignores the history of the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the rise of ISIS, a history that may rhyme if not exactly repeat itself absent continued U.S. involvement in the region. And lest we think that the war against the Islamic State wasn’t important to our security, I would note that since its destruction there have been no ISIS-inspired mass murder events in the West.
2. Iran. Retrenchment comes at a cost. We can debate whether the cost is acceptable, but we cannot ignore that there will be a cost to withdrawal from the region. Iran in particular desires to establish hegemony across the Middle East, and is likely to achieve that goal absent U.S. resistance. We may want Saudi Arabia to assume the costs of containing Iran, but it is unable to do so. Iran’s population of 81 million dwarfs the Saudi population of 33 million. The Saudi economy is also highly vulnerable to disruption, something the world discovered when cruise missiles and drones damaged a facility at Abqaiq and thereby halved Saudi oil production.
3. Oil. Although thanks to the fracking revolution the United States is now nearly self-sufficient in the production of oil and natural gas, the other major industrial nations of the world still rely on Middle Eastern oil to fuel their economies. The hydrocarbon market is global, so any disruption to oil exportation from the Middle East will have an impact on the availability and price of oil, which in turn could cause economic disruption or recession. It is convenient to say the Europeans, Chinese, or Japanese should defend their access to Middle Eastern oil since they are more dependent on it than the United States, but this is a pipe dream. Those nations would rather allow Iran to run roughshod over the Middle East than to defend their interests there with force. And do we really relish the prospect of Chinese military forces intervening in the Gulf to ensure the flow of oil to Asia?
4. Israel. Despite the lack of a formal alliance with Israel, that state is America’s only reliable partner in the Middle East. It is also highly vulnerable, surrounded by an Arab-Islamic world that desires its destruction. Abandonment by the United States would jeopardize its security in any number of ways that could lead to unpredictable results, including a potential war between Israel and Iran that would threaten the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945.
5. Counter-proliferation. Possession of nuclear weapons by major powers have arguably kept cold wars from turning hot in the 75 years since the end of World War II, but a significant increase in the number of states possessing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology would likely destabilize the international security environment. Imagine if Iran had nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles today; pushed to the brink by economic sanctions, the Supreme Leader might opt at some point for a nuclear attack against Saudi Arabia or Israel, leading to certain retaliation by the latter. Saudi Arabia would hardly stand by as Iran acquired these technologies; instead, it would simply purchase devices from Pakistan or North Korea or buy the technical expertise to develop its own weapons and delivery systems. This is a likely scenario, but one that can be avoided provided the United States remains engaged in the region.
6. Refugees. Millions of refugees have departed their homelands in the Middle East for safer destinations. Most of these people have settled in other Arab nations, but around 3.5 million are in Turkey. Since 2008 more than 5 million refugees, many of them from the Middle East, have arrived in the 28 states of the European Union, significantly destabilizing the domestic political climate of a number of countries, including Great Britain, France, Germany, Poland, and Hungary. A U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East, if it led to a war between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran, would lead to another refugee crisis.
Remaining engaged in the Middle East does not mean the United States must act as a global or regional hegemon. In fact, working with and through allies, as the United States did in the successful war against the Islamic State, is by far preferable to going it alone, a course of action that usually leads to an excessive reliance on the military instrument of power. But the sad fact is that in the upcoming presidential election politicians from both the right and the left will play to populist demands to bring the troops home, consequences be damned. They will blithely ignore the consequences of retrenchment because they are ignorant of the history of U.S. relations with the Middle East, even in their own adult lifetimes. Those developments that would help the United States leave the region—the development of alternative sources of energy, an Iranian government less bent on exporting revolution, and the defeat of radical Islamism—may come in time, but are unlikely to arrive soon. Until then, the United States must remain engaged in the Middle East to protect its interests and provide the leadership and means that alone can ensure the stability of the region for the foreseeable future.