What role should the United States play in the Middle East as its attention shifts to the objectives outlined in the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy of competing with near peers like Russia and China? Today pundits and observers are posing this question against a backdrop of more than a decade and a half of costly, inconclusive and seemingly “endless” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the more recent deployment of roughly two thousand Special Forces troops to Syria as part of the counter ISIS campaign. To President Trump the answer seems clear. He noted in April 2018 at an Ohio rally “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” In December, after overruling most of his senior national security team he ordered a total U.S. withdrawal from Syria and apparently directed the Pentagon to plan for a similar withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump’s position was consistent with his long-standing view that the U.S. should “stay the hell out of Syria” and his campaign promises more broadly that the U.S. should extricate itself from “endless” wars in the Middle East which he described as “one big, fat quagmire” (although as of this writing there may be some developments that will limit or mitigate the President’s intent to withdraw totally from the U.S. involvements in Syria and Afghanistan).
The President is clearly not alone in advocating disengagement from the Middle East. His predecessor, President Barack Obama shared the view that the U.S. had strategically overinvested in the Middle East and needed to reduce its footprint in the region. Public support for ongoing military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been waning for years. In both the Republican and Democratic Parties libertarian voices on the right and non-interventionist voices on the left have called for reducing and limiting American commitments in the region. Moreover, in the weeks since the President’s announcement and the resulting resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis, many experts who had previously supported a muscular U.S. policy in the region have concluded that Trump is correct and that, in fact, U.S. withdrawal is the only sustainable position.
Different observers offer a range of arguments for retrenchment and retreat from the region but there are a number of areas of overlap and agreement among the advocates of a policy of withdrawal and restraint.
First, the retrenchers suggest that the public no longer supports a strategy of forward engagement in the region. The American people, they argue, are “war-weary” and tired of an inconclusive involvement that seems to have left the region no better off and the United States facing as many or more radical jihadists as it did at the dawn of the century. In fact, many argue that U.S. involvement has created more disorder in the region and that solving the region’s many pathologies (lack of democracy, gender inequality, deficiencies in human capital and resources) is simply beyond the ability of the U.S.
Second, the technological revolution in energy (hydraulic fracturing, slant drilling etc) has provided access to tight oil and natural gas that has made the U.S. energy self-sufficient (if not totally independent). This has, critics suggest, made the U.S. free to cut its losses in the broader Middle East since it no longer has a vital interest in the region’s energy resources.
Third, other forces are present in the region (Russia, Iran, China) who share the U.S. interest in defeating whatever Sunni Islamist extremists remain active in the Middle East after almost two decades of continued U.S. military exertions. They can be counted on to clean up the remnants of the Islamic state and prevent a recrudescence.
Finally, the growing challenge to America’s global position seems to be a function of China’s rise and Russia’s revisionist ambitions for Europe. While the U.S. has been otherwise engaged in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, that is to say sub-conventional military operations, in the Middle East its emerging great power rivals have developed eye-watering military capabilities that threaten U.S. global military primacy and require U.S. policymakers to pivot away from the region and toward a policy of securing American qualitative military advantages at the high end of the conflict spectrum. As a result, as the National Defense Strategy suggests, the U.S. must be prepared to take risks in the Middle East as it reorients its defense effort to focus on Europe and East Asia.
These are all serious arguments and some of them have a very seductive quality. After all, who wants to argue that the U.S. should persist in unceasing conflict with no prospect of victory? Unfortunately, however, the argument for retrenchment, while superficially attractive, neglects some basic regional and geopolitical realities.
The first, and perhaps, most important reality is that the Middle East as a subordinate element of the international system is inextricably tied up with security in both Europe and East Asia. As L. Carl Brown noted more than 30 years ago, “for roughly the last two centuries the Middle East has been consistently and more thoroughly ensnarled in great power politics than any other part of the non-Western world.” That remains the case today (as Russian and Chinese attention to the region attests) and is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Since Napoleon marched into Egypt in 1798, the region has been unable to reach a stable equilibrium among the national forces unleashed by the decline and ultimate collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Outside powers have struggled for influence over and mastery of the region with a shifting constellation of alliances and alignments. As the post-World War II global order came into being, American policymakers viewed the Middle East’s energy resources as a vital interest, above all, for our allies in Europe and Asia. At the outset, the responsibility, from Washington’s point of view, for maintaining regional order largely rested with Britain. This view began to change in the 1950s and shifted decisively after the UK gave up its defense responsibilities East of Suez in 1967. Ultimately, the importance of preventing an outside hostile power from dominating the region was recognized formally by President Jimmy Carter in his State of the Union address in 1980. As a practical matter his successors have tried to preserve access to the Gulf and prevent not just an outside power but any regional power from achieving hegemony in the region as well. After 9/11 the eradication of jihadist terrorist groups became an additional strategic objective.
What would be the consequences of upending this traditional policy and ending the role of the US as the balancer of choice and organizer of security frameworks in the region? Does it matter in an era of US energy self-sufficiency? What reasons might exist for a continued U.S. role?
First, despite rising U.S. energy production and prospective self-sufficiency, oil remains a globally traded commodity, and hence real or even potential disruptions to the flow of oil anywhere would have serious negative effects on price levels and the growth of the U.S. economy. The Middle East still contains half of global proven oil reserves, accounts for one-third of oil production and exports, and is home to three of the world’s four biggest oil transit chokepoints. Moreover, our allies in both Europe and East Asia remain vulnerable to disruptions in the flow of oil.
Second, the withdrawal of American power will create a vacuum that, as recent events in the Levant have demonstrated, will be filled by malign forces. Russia’s armed intervention has established it as the arbiter of the region’s political future. It has no intention of yielding up this hard-won geopolitical achievement. Both Russia and Iran want to roll back U.S. influence even further in the region, and each depends on the other to help it do so—primarily in Syria, but also through deepening Russian diplomatic, economic and technical assistance for Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs. Benefitting as much as it does, Russia is unlikely to reduce its ties with Iran at anything approaching an acceptable cost to the United States. Nor is Moscow’s approach to counterterrorism at all complementary to our own. On the contrary, Russia’s indiscriminate bludgeoning of Syrian cities from the air destroyed the moderate opposition and gave further fuel to Sunni grievances. Continued Russian and Iranian presence in Syria and beyond may be able to maintain Assad in power but it will not be able ensure stability in the region. On the contrary, it is likely that the Russo-Iranian presence will intensify security competitions that destabilize the region and create an ongoing threat to Israel’s security.
Third, as Kenneth Pollack has recently noted Arab military effectiveness remains (with some notable exceptions like the UAE and Jordanian special forces who have acquitted themselves well in Afghanistan) quite limited. The results of this limited effectiveness are on display in the ongoing war in Yemen which has yielded little in the way of a positive geopolitical result but has created a deepening humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-Emirati intervention in the ongoing Yemeni civil war in 2015 was the fruit of the Obama Administration’s efforts to diminish U.S. involvement in the region and its studied inaction in Syria. The ongoing disasters in Syria and Yemen are an indication of what one can expect if the U.S. no longer provides a framework for security in the region.
Fourth, as several commentators have noted what happens in the region will not necessarily stay in the region. As a result of globalization and the region’s critical location, instability there still reverberates outward through Europe, Africa, East Asia, and even the American homeland. Radical Islamists have made clear their grievances run much deeper than our footprint in the region. Indeed, ISIS only grew into a regional, then global, threat largely because of our diminishing presence and the security vacuum it created in Iraq. At the same time, the Russian-Iranian sponsored indiscriminate offensives conducted by the Assad regime against its own people have triggered massive refugee outflows that are exacerbating Europe’s already strained economic and social fabric and threatening to overwhelm the security institutions of some our closest allies. A precipitate U.S. withdrawal could lead to a collapse of the anti-ISIS coalition and a re-emergence of the organization as a threat to U.S. allies and ultimately the homeland.
Finally, America still faces the problem that, in a globalized world, security commitments are, to some degree, indivisible. If, in fact, our major security challenges are in Europe and East Asia, the perception that the U.S. is reneging on its long-standing security commitments in the region will create doubts – in the eyes of both friends and foes – about our willingness to maintain our commitments elsewhere in the world like the Baltics, the Korean Peninsula, or the South China Sea
These are powerful arguments in favor of the U.S. retaining a strategy of engagement and forward presence in the Middle East. Regardless, the skeptics’ argument that such a policy lacks public support remains a powerful criticism. There is, however, an answer to that reproach. It is not the case that there is no choice between a total withdrawal of U.S. power from the region and a large-scale, costly presence on the order of what was involved in Operation Iraq Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The U.S. does indeed have other options, and what has been undertaken since 2014 by both the Obama and Trump Administrations points the way.
That effort relied largely on small numbers of U.S. special forces as advisers and trainers, along with coalition airpower to eliminate the ISIS caliphate and maintain a limited force in Syria and Iraq that could obstruct Russian and Iran from exercising uncontested influence in both places. The presence in Syria, for example, was an enormously successful undertaking that liberated Raqqa from ISIS and is now on the cusp of eliminating the last vestiges of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate. It also provided an obstacle to Iran developing a land bridge that would stretch all the way to the border with Israel. The number of U.S. forces was small, the costs were limited and the casualties were quite light. There was no groundswell of public opinion calling for the U.S. to withdraw, before the President made his snap decision on the basis of a phone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayipp Erdogan.
A strategy that relies on a limited U.S. presence while working with and through allies and partners continues to be a viable option, indeed perhaps the only option, for maintaining U.S. presence and influence in a vital region and limiting the influence of our Russian and Iranian competitors. Without a continued U.S. presence there is a chance – and not an inconsequential one - that the jihadists, whose residual cadre of some fifteen to thirty thousand fighters remains a major security challenge, may be able to reconstitute themselves and present a renewed threat to the safety and security of our European allies and the U.S. homeland. It is also likely that any effort to contain or roll back Iran’s growing malign influence and activity in the region will be less successful without a continued U.S. role in providing the security framework. We already see signs that both local and NATO allies do not want to participate in any “stability” force in northeastern Syria absent a U.S. role.
A new strategy from Washington will require more than simple reliance on military tools, it will depend on deft diplomacy to reinvigorate our alliances in the region while at the same time dealing with some of the unfortunate, and in some cases morally reprehensible, decisions that have been made and actions that they have undertaken. For instance, further diplomatic steps will be necessary to find a political solution to deal with the dislocation created by the war in Yemen and to stabilize the territory in Syria and Iraq that the allies have liberated from the would-be caliphate with international reconstruction efforts.
The Trump Administration deserves credit for encouraging our Sunni Arab partners to cooperate more openly with Israel. More will be required, however, to create real military and diplomatic leverage against Iran’s overbearing role in the region. This will include facilitating robust multi-layered theater missile defenses and interoperable air and maritime defenses in the Gulf, including potentially using directed energy weapons. Other useful capabilities for our Gulf allies would include those that impose costs on Iran, like unmanned aerial vehicles for strike missions, augmented undersea warfare capabilities to counter Iran’s guerrilla navy and tactical ballistic missiles to hold Iranian coastal infrastructure at risk. The U.S. should also consider developing new approaches to future military assistance to better match the capabilities of some elite units in the Arab world with new information-based military technologies that are now becoming available.
The U.S. will need to carefully calibrate its strategy to contain and rollback Iran and Sunni jihadists to ensure that its ways, means and ends are in balance. The difficult experience of the first decade and half of the century has suggested that some greater modesty in objectives is in order. It seems that for now grand, transformative visions are beyond the ability of the U.S. to execute. That does not mean, however, that all efforts at promoting democracy and human rights should be abandoned. Rather it means that we must recognize that ultimately the inhabitants of the region have the most agency in how their story turns out. The U.S. can provide technical assistance and guidance, but its role is ultimately as a facilitator of both security frameworks as well as of economic and political development.
U.S. policy in the Middle East has been far from perfect. American policymakers have made many mistakes over the years from the Suez War to the present day. Nonetheless, as Ray Takeyh and Steve Simon argue in The Pragmatic Superpower, during the Cold War American policymakers were remarkably successful in achieving their policy objectives. There is no reason why a reasonably sized forward presence and policy of sustained engagement cannot do the same in the years ahead.