Is the United States withdrawing from the Middle East? Certainly, plenty of people in the region think that is the case, to the extent that high-ranking officials from the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have recently tried to reassure Gulf state leaders and publics that the United States remains committed to the region.
“Withdrawal” has been a convenient hook on which to hang arguments about the appropriate level of U.S. commitment in the Middle East. This author has been as guilty as the next pundit on this score, titling a 2019 article on the subject “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” That cheeky homage to The Clash might have been clever (to some), but it was hardly nuanced. Even those who advocate withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the region do not think that the United States should disengage diplomatically and economically. The vast majority of those who call for “staying” do not think that requires U.S. forces to occupy militarily Iraq and Afghanistan, as Washington did for years, and so are in favor of some measure of “withdrawal” from the high point of the U.S. military commitment.
The real policy choices rest somewhere between “commitment” and “withdrawal” – between staying and going. The United States still retains an extensive network of bases and facilities in the broader Middle East, most centered in the Gulf. U.S. land, sea, and air forces surge into the region when policymakers think that is necessary; they draw down when perceived threats recede. The hard question is just what threats require a robust U.S. military response, to deter potential actions by unfriendly states, to respond to such actions and to strike before such actions occur.
Should the United States use force preventively to replace hostile regimes?
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush used military force to change regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the theory that unfriendly regimes will harbor terrorists and perhaps arm them with weapons of mass destruction for further attacks against the United States. The failures in Iraq and Afghanistan to build stable successor states make it unlikely that any administration in the near future would repeat the hubris of that use of U.S. military force.
Should U.S. forces protect friendly regimes from foreign attack?
The U.S. track record here is clear. Overt invasion across international borders of friendly states is something that the United States will use force to reverse, as it did in the Gulf War of 1991 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Whether it should continue to do so is an open question. While it is generally accepted to call many Middle Eastern states U.S. “allies” (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the smaller Gulf monarchies), the United States does not have a treaty of alliance obligating it to come to these countries’ defense as it does with its NATO allies and Japan. Israel, with the strongest military in the region, is basically able to take care of itself. It is hard to imagine that Egypt could not handle its own military security needs against potential attack, unless the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty falls apart. The other countries mentioned are in less secure situations.
Does a U.S. military presence in the Gulf states deter conventional attack against them?
An Iranian or Iraqi conventional military invasion of one of these countries is highly unlikely, but other kinds of attack are more probable. An argument can be made that the U.S. military infrastructure in the Gulf states is an insurance policy, reducing even further the chances of a low probability but high impact event like Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. An argument can also be made that the U.S. presence in these states could invite retaliation against them from Iran, should the United States find itself in an armed confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
Should the United States use military force to protect friendly regimes from domestic upheavals?
The use of military force to sustain friendly regimes against their own people is not something the United States will do. It did not do so for the Shah of Iran in 1978-79 nor for Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011. Friendly rulers are on their own if their own people rise up against them. Covert involvement is another thing, as in case of the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.
Should the United States use force to protect the free flow of oil from the Gulf?
For decades, U.S. policymakers have said that the military presence in the Gulf was first and foremost to protect the free flow of oil. The U.S. Navy fought a number of engagements against Iran in 1987-88 when Iranian forces threatened the shipment of Kuwaiti and Saudi oil, culminating in the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner by the USS Vincennes in July 1988. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and subsequent international sanctions took over 5 million barrels per day of oil off the market. The United States mounted an enormous military effort to reverse the invasion. However, when Iran (or its proxies) attacked key Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019, temporarily taking about 5 mb/d off the market, the administration of former President Donald J. Trump held its fire.
There are now questions about how central Gulf oil is to U.S. energy security, given the recovery of U.S. energy production. Added to that is a persistent argument that local producers cannot drink the oil, so they have to sell it. Thus, military protection is a waste of money and lives. However, U.S. presidents do like to be able to press Gulf oil producers on production questions and for diplomatic help on a range of issues. Could they still do that if those producers did not see Washington as their ultimate security guarantor?
Should the United States use force to prevent hostile states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction?
The weapons of mass destruction argument was the main public justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. That did not turn out well. Israel, on the other hand, has had more success in one-off strikes against nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, though there is evidence that the Iraq strike in 1981 accelerated Saddam Hussein’s program to acquire a nuclear capability. The immediate question for Washington on this score is the Iranian nuclear program. There is no evidence that the Iranians have weaponized but plenty of worry that they could do so. The Biden administration has reiterated the position of its predecessors that it will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. All of its recent predecessors have been willing to use covert means, usually in cooperation with Israel, to set back Iranian nuclear ambitions. Biden is likely to be just as willing to take covert action. However, with the current negotiations on restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran seemingly headed toward failure, he could be faced in the very near future with a stark choice of whether to support an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities or ordering one himself.
If the high point of U.S. intervention in the Middle East was the late 2000s, with a surge of military personnel in Iraq and tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, the current U.S. presence certainly reflects something of a withdrawal. It is unlikely that any U.S. president in the near future would be willing to return to that level of military involvement. However, it is equally clear that the more extreme ideas of U.S. regional “withdrawal” are highly unlikely. The debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East needs to move away from abstractions like “commitment” versus “withdrawal” and engage with the real questions of just what interests in the Middle East justify the presence of U.S. military force and what threats justify its use.