One of the most persistent myths about U.S. foreign policy is the idea that America desires—due to greed, messianic ideological impulses, or simple imperial presumptions—to dominate the Middle East. In reality, American policy has long been torn by two conflicting imperatives: The need to protect enduring U.S. interests, on the one hand, and the desire to stay clear of the region’s unending headaches, on the other. Paul Wolfowitz remarked once that his shift from focusing on the Middle East to working on East Asia was like “walking out of some oppressive, stuffy room into sunlight and fresh air.” To borrow the metaphor, American officials have long desired to walk toward the sunlight—while understanding that they cannot fully escape the darkness.
Today, calls for the United States to disengage militarily from the Middle East are commonplace. Those calls reflect deep frustration with the travails of American interventions over the past two decades, as well as the belief—entirely correct—that the United States faces greater challenges elsewhere. Yet U.S. interests in the region have not disappeared, and the prospect that Middle Eastern troubles will impact America if left unattended is as high as ever. If the United States rushes for the exits, it may find that it is pulled back under worse circumstances, and at higher costs, in the future. President Trump is giving voice to a powerful and understandable urge to cut cleanly and get out of the Middle East. The best approach, however, may be one that reflects America’s longstanding ambivalence about the region.
The interests that have long kept the United States involved in the Middle East are fairly clear. Coming out of World War II, American strategists resolved that the United States must prevent any hostile force from dominating a region of critical geopolitical or geo-economic significance. The Middle East, with its vast oil reserves, certainly fit that description. True, America never got a particularly large portion of its oil from Middle Eastern sources. But its allies did: “The Marshall Plan for Europe,” noted Truman’s first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, “could not succeed without access to the Middle East oil.” Moreover, the fact that oil was traded on a global market meant that a disruption of price or supply in one region would cause disruption on a far larger scale.
At present, the United States is again becoming a net energy exporter and a swing producer in the global oil market. Yet so long as the countries of the Middle East sit atop huge energy reserves that confer great wealth and power on whoever controls it, the strategic importance of the Middle East—and the imperative of keeping it out of hostile hands—will remain.
Other issues have also kept the United States engaged. Since the 1970s, America has had a critical interest in preventing or combating international terrorism, much of which emerges from the Middle East. American policymakers have been properly concerned with confronting aggression against friendly nations and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction to rogue states or non-state actors. Then there is the American interest in promoting peace, democracy, and human rights in the Middle East—one that has never been as important as the other U.S. interests, that has affected how even the most cynical, “realist” administrations have approached the region.
Over a period of decades, these issues have exerted a strong gravitational pull on American policy, making it impossible for U.S. officials to ignore the region. And yet American policymakers have often been equally aware of the problems that U.S. engagement presents.
The situation in the Middle East, Dean Acheson once commented, “might have been devised by Karl Marx himself.” A combination of stunted development, stifling socio-political conditions, and resentment of foreign influence made the region ripe for radicalism and inherently difficult for outside powers to manage. Getting deeply involved in the Middle East ran the risk of making America the target of that radicalism and anger; it also ran the risk of distracting the United States from other areas where the prospects for constructive change seemed more promising. The Middle East, Wolfowitz lamented, was an area “where people only know how to create problems.” The result has been a perpetual tension: The Middle East might require American attention and management, but it was also a source of dangers and distractions that most U.S. officials would have been just as happy to avoid.
This tension has been omnipresent as the U.S. role in the Middle East has expanded since the 1970s, following the British withdrawal from the region. During the late 1970s and 1980s, the United States built up the military capabilities necessary to prevent the Soviet Union (or perhaps a hostile Iran) from dominating the region. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Tehran’s influence. But at the same time, the United States refrained from a significant “onshore” military presence in the Persian Gulf out of fear of inciting terrorist attacks, offending local sensitivities, or discrediting friendly regimes. Once the Iran-Iraq War ended, American military capabilities started flowing out of the region, to be refocused on other priorities.
That trend was reversed after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait prompted a massive, U.S.-led intervention to restore the regional balance of power, as well as a persistent post-conflict military presence to keep an eye on Saddam’s wounded but still dangerous regime. As early as 1990-91, however, U.S. officials had been deeply ambivalent about the idea of permanently stationing American forces in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries. They worried that such a presence might make American forces the target of terrorist groups that opposed authoritarian governments in the Persian Gulf—warnings that seemed vindicated when al-Qaeda began taking aim at U.S. targets in the region and far beyond.
The 9/11 attacks offered evidence that the Middle East’s problems could reach out and touch the United States in disastrous ways. The George W. Bush administration responded with the massive projection of American power into the region, focused on defeating al-Qaeda, toppling hostile governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, birthing stable democracies, and thereby transforming the region for the better. When that project proved vastly more costly and difficult than expected, the Obama administration sought to limit U.S. engagement in the region as a way of husbanding resources, avoiding blowback, and “pivoting” to more promising areas. Yet even Obama, so skeptical of American intervention in the region, was unable to get out entirely: The persistent threat of terrorism compelled continuing engagement in Afghanistan; humanitarian concerns triggered military action in Libya; the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and inaction in Syria contributed to a regional meltdown that ultimately compelled re-intervention to deal with a new and terrifying threat from ISIS. The story of American policy in the Middle East has been one of engagement—sometimes remarkably intensive and violent engagement—but also one of recurring ambivalence about that engagement.
Today, the Trump administration is manifesting the same ambivalence. The president reportedly referred to Syria as a country offering only “sand and death,” and he announced plans for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Trump appears to be eyeing the exits in Afghanistan as well. But at the same time, a familiar set of factors is making other U.S. officials reluctant to countenance a broad withdrawal. The U.S. intelligence community has warned that a complete pullout from Afghanistan could lead to a major terrorist attack on the American homeland within two years. There are also concerns that American retrenchment would open the door for hostile actors—Iran and Russia—to exert dominant influence in a region that still matters. Trump is a most unorthodox president, but he faces the same dilemma that has long afflicted U.S. policy in the Middle East. Indeed, that dilemma may explain why the president—after insisting for months that the United States would withdraw entirely from Syria, just recently indicated that a token American force might remain.
So what can this history tell us about how to proceed today? Three key points are in order.
First, there is a critical need to meter U.S. involvement in the Middle East. This is not simply because large-scale interventions have proven so unrewarding over the past two decades. It is also because the need to confront other, more important issues—namely the threats posed by China and Russia—is undeniable. There is a finite amount of resources, time, and political will the United States can devote to foreign policy issues. And when Washington overcommits to a region as frustrating as the Middle East, it risks undermining public support for U.S. foreign policy not just in that region but around the world. If the United States goes big in the Middle East, it will sooner or later face strong pressures to go home.
Second, however, it is a fantasy to think that the United States can disengage from the Middle East without consequence. This is because America still has pressing interests in that region—and because those interests are as unlikely to protect themselves today as they ever have been in the past. Growing Russian influence, Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, the potential resurgence of key terrorist organizations, and the massive political instability and violence that plagues large swaths of the region are real problems that demand competent management. America’s partners in the region can do more to manage those problems than they have done to date, but they remain manifestly incapable of doing so without significant U.S. support.
Third, hasty withdrawals are likely to be followed by hasty re-engagements. After the United States left Iraq in 2011, the state nearly collapsed, ISIS surged to prominence, and an emergency military intervention—which has now lasted nearly five years—was needed to repair the damage. If the United States disengages from Syria and Afghanistan today and the result is a significant terrorist attack, the pressure to get back into the region and take decisive military action will be strong indeed—even if that means shortchanging other geopolitical priorities. If America goes home from the Middle East, it will sooner or later face pressures to go big.
Whatever policies the Trump administration pursues in the Middle East, then, the United States will continue to face the same conflicting imperatives that have long shaped its approach to that region. America will be drawn toward the Middle East by enduring interests and pressing threats. But it will be tempted to depart the region because of the dangers and costs U.S. engagement causes.
In these circumstances, a responsible strategy would focus on minimizing the dangers and costs of engagement by suppressing the most serious threats at the lowest expenditure of resources. This might entail using a select subset of capabilities—special operations forces, tactical airpower, support for local forces—to keep the pressure on the most dangerous terrorist groups and prevent them from mounting major external attacks. (This was, in essence, the strategy the United States was following prior to Trump’s Syria withdrawal announcement.) Likewise, it might focus on empowering—with intelligence, diplomatic, and military support—anti-Iran actors in the region and thereby maintaining a tolerable balance of power. In Afghanistan, this might mean continuing to push for a negotiated peace deal, but only with adequate assurances that an American withdrawal would not turn that country into a terrorist playground—and without telegraphing a near-term retreat that will only make such assurances harder to obtain.
The worst strategies, by contrast, would be those that skew toward the extremes of deeper engagement or precipitate withdrawal, inviting some adverse development that would cause an overcorrection in the future. “Muddle through” is rarely the sort of advice that wins a lot of applause. But it may be the best approach to managing America’s continuing strategic ambivalence about the Middle East.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is also a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His most recent books are American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump (2018) and The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019), co-authored with Charles Edel.