Is the United States truly ready to get its military forces out of the Middle East? Should it? Considering there are upwards of 60,000 troops in the region today, many of them stationed on bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, this is a question ripe for debate.
In a new paper for the Quincy Institute, University of Notre Dame scholar Eugene Gholz argues in detail that the fundamental reasons for American military involvement there — security, oil, human rights — no longer apply, and that staying there only emboldens the bad behavior of regional actors. In his Gholz’s words, “If the United States is in fact interested in a more stable Middle East, it must remove its weight from the scales and allow the region to recalibrate according to its actual multipolar balance of power.”
As such, he writes, Washington should start packing for a significant military withdrawal over the next five to 10 years.
Responsible Statecraft asked several Middle East and foreign policy scholars to comment on Gholz’s arguments, and to discuss whether this dramatic shift is feasible and necessary for U.S. and regional interests.
Roxane Farmanfarmaian: The American behemoth in the region works against U.S. interests
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is almost upon us. In the two decades since, we have spent billions of dollars in the Middle East to contain terrorism, sold trillions of dollars worth of arms to our regional allies, and built up our own military footprint in the Gulf to protect American interests. What does the balance sheet look like as we approach this anniversary? Was the treasure well-spent? Were American interests well served?
As the curtain rises on the third decade after 9/11, the spotlight inevitably focuses on what our national interests are in the Middle East, and whether an extensive military footprint there is still necessary. Both Presidents Obama and Trump, and indeed, now Biden, in their own ways have pushed for a pivot away from the costly ventures in the Middle East and toward a new focus on southeast Asia. Yet reducing bases and troops is never easy, particularly as figuring out what American interests actually are today in the Middle East — beyond the core principle of preserving and advancing the security of the American people — is still being debated.
Focusing in-depth on two main interests, preventing the rise of a hostile regional hegemon and the interruption to the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, Eugene Gholz thoroughly debunks the need for a permanent U.S. military presence to accomplish either, with the overwhelming superiority of U.S. airpower being so definitive, and yet, so easily able to be flown in when needed.
U.S. dominance is not where the nuance of his argument against a permanent Middle East-based presence lies, however. It does not even lie in his analysis of the failures of U.S. troop action in the Middle East — in the wars to stamp out terrorism, the inability to dissuade states from acquiring a nuclear weapon, or the compromises made over the protection of human rights.
The argument’s nuance lies in its highlighting an issue that is often ignored because of what it says about American identity, but which is critical to making a success out of next steps: that the very presence of a behemoth the size and power of the U.S. military, which of course is foreign to the region and naturally favors some states against others, is actually working against core American interests.
The heaviness of our presence sucks the oxygen out of local efforts to establish working relationships between and with neighbors, such as the Gulf states and Iran, which must exist proximate to each other regardless of differences in religion or ideology. Our high troop footprint stymies a sense of responsibility and ownership by the community of Gulf and Middle East states to develop their own regional security agreements, since those that are U.S. partners consider U.S. military protection the better bet, even if it does mean internal instability and conflict with neighbors. U.S. military presence is even skewing the containment of today’s fragmented form of terrorism by making it a military rather than a policing and governance responsibility — generating blowback for an ongoing cycle of terrorism.
The irony is, none of these issues have direct bearing on U.S. national interests — these are all local issues, and Gholz rightly points out they don’t, even remotely, threaten the U.S. heartland. In other words, we have become part of the problem over there — and in the process, we are neglecting the real threats to our national interests.
Chris Preble: Demolishing tired assumptions about the U.S. military posture
The Biden administration seems serious about wanting to revisit force deployments globally. Eugene Gholz spells out many reasons why it should start by reducing the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East.
“The current U.S. force posture in the region is not necessary to guarantee U.S. interests,” he explains. “At worst, the large presence of the U.S. military undermines U.S. interests by contributing to instability, which in turn can enmesh the United States in additional conflicts.”
Consider just three aspects of a very comprehensive paper: oil, regional hegemony, and human rights.
Too many in the DC policy community still operate under assumptions informed — or, more accurately, misinformed — by the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, and by an energy market that has transformed many times over since then. Today, those who believe that ensuring the flow of Middle Eastern oil is a vital U.S. interest are prepared to expend considerable resources — and risk the lives of American servicemen and women — in the service of that mission, but Gholz conclusively demonstrates that fears of supply disruptions leading to serious economic harm are overblown.
A related but distinct alleged rationale for a substantial U.S. military presence is to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon. But, once again, Gholz demolishes the suggestion that Iran — or any other aspirant — is likely to prevail. Indeed, Gholz crafts an exceptionally sophisticated and thorough argument documenting the many reasons why establishing hegemony is extraordinarily difficult under any circumstance — and particularly so in today’s Middle East. This section alone is well worth the price of admission.
Gholz points to yet another reason for questioning the net benefits of a de facto permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East — the undermining of Americans’ professed commitment to democracy and human rights. The U.S. government’s long-standing support for autocratic governments throughout the Middle East exposes Americans to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.
Advocates for a U.S. military presence often invoke the argument that these forces provide the United States with leverage, allowing Washington to shape the region’s long-term trajectory and, eventually, enable democracy to prevail. But, as Gholz wisely observes, given “that many of America’s strategic partners in the region are some of the world’s most notorious human rights violators, it is more reasonable to conclude that the U.S. military presence in the region has served to protect these regimes despite their human rights violations.” Claims that Americans care about the freedom and general well-being of average men and women are belied by the reality of the close — and often personal — connections that U.S. foreign policy elites have with the region’s privileged few.
Some realists may dismiss such concerns as ephemeral, but the high levels of anti-American sentiment in the region derive, in part, from the sense that American leaders talk out of both sides of their mouths — and this can produce grave consequences. In an earlier era, following the revolution that overthrew the tyrannical Shah of Iran, the people of Iran turned their ire toward the United States for having installed and maintained him in power for decades. One can only imagine how much anger and resentment has built up against the ruling classes in other countries in the region, and how that animosity might someday be directed against the American people.
In short, Eugene Gholz has delivered an important report informed by present realities, and well-suited to the future. Policymakers in the Biden administration determined to craft a sustainable grand strategy for the United States will find many useful insights here.
Barbara Slavin: Is a new security architecture in the Middle East possible?
The large U.S. military footprint in the Middle East dates to the reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. It ramped up further during the 1991 Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait and again after 2001 in the so-called “War on Terrorism” that featured invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the need for 50,000-plus troops permanently in the region is waning, especially as the United States finally withdraws combat forces from Afghanistan. With long-term bases in Germany and Italy and another convenient location to the east of the region on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, there is no reason for the United States to keep large numbers of military personnel in perpetuity in the Arab countries bordering the Persian Gulf.
The arguments made by Eugene Gholz in the paper for the Quincy Institute are sound. My only caveat is that I am not optimistic that, left to their own devices, the countries in the region will be able to create a new security architecture. Iran, despite decades of sanctions, has shown an ability to exploit the internal weaknesses of Arab countries through bankrolling local proxies and is unlikely to stop.
Meanwhile, the Arab monarchies on the Persian Gulf have failed to coordinate successfully. Smaller Arab states fear being dominated by Saudi Arabia and losing freedom of maneuver. The failure of the Gulf Cooperation Council after four decades to even coordinate missile defenses — not to mention the pointless Saudi and Emirati-led boycott of Qatar from 2017 to 2021 — is ample evidence of regional dysfunction, even without taking into account the historic rivalry between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Iran.
However, as the United States withdraws from the region, the need for de-escalation of local conflicts intensifies. It is probably best served by a continuation of bilateral talks between Iran and its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. Such talks have already begun in Iraq and could lead to a rapid restoration of diplomatic ties and people-to-people contact including Iranian participation in the hajj and athletic and cultural exchanges.
Normalization of Saudi-Iranian relations should also help reduce in violence in Yemen, site of the world’s largest humanitarian disaster.
The consolidation of power in Iran among conservatives after the June 18 presidential election might facilitate a decrease in regional tensions as the incoming Raisi administration needs to focus on repairing Iran’s sanctions and COVID-battered economy. While Iran will not end its alliances with non-state actors, it can be persuaded to encourage a lighter footprint and less violent interaction with Sunni Arab-backed groups.The entire region is suffering from the impact of the pandemic and is looking toward a future of greener energy, threatening the main source of hard currency, petrochemicals. It simply cannot afford new wars or a constant stream of advanced armaments.
Instead of maintaining a large and costly military presence in the region, the Biden administration should support any and all diplomatic efforts aimed at reducing tensions. It should start by returning to compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — assuming Iran does so as well — and reducing the potential for accidental clashes with Iran in and around the Persian Gulf. In the event of a true military emergency, the United States can always rapidly deploy. But a constant presence is a recipe for intervention: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Paul Pillar: Rivalries will check any would-be hegemons, inside and out
Eugene Gholz has persuasively refuted the notions that the Middle East is in danger of takeover by a regional hegemon and that oil from the region could readily be interdicted enough to cripple the global economy. That those notions are false flows not only from careful analysis, as is found in Gholz’s paper, of the relevant military capabilities and challenges. It also is a matter of interests and incentives.
Regarding oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz, for example, one of the factors helping to ensure continuation of the exports is that oil producers on both sides of the Persian Gulf have a strong economic interest in an undisrupted oil trade. The prospect of making its own oil industry a target for attack has been one of the disincentives keeping Iran from interfering with oil exports of its rivals. It was only after the Trump administration tried to destroy Iran’s oil trade through economic warfare that this disincentive weakened, leading to the attack in September 2019 on the Saudi oil processing facility at Abqaiq.
Energy security is not a reason to keep U.S. military forces in the region. Some of the biggest price spikes in the petroleum market have occurred when it appeared that war between those same forces and Iran might break out.
As for the specter of a regional hegemon emerging, nationalism and intra-regional rivalries help to prevent that. The political dynamics involved can be seen at work today in Iraq, where Iraqi nationalism is the best check on Iranian influence — and where a political consensus, reflecting the same Iraqi nationalism, opposes prolongation of a U.S. military presence.
Rivalries also help check any would-be hegemony by an outside power. Syria’s Russian and Iranian allies have worked on the same side to prop up the Assad regime, but they otherwise are rivals for influence in this country, the only longstanding Arab ally of each.
U.S. military forces in the Middle East have functioned less as guarantors of security and stability than as targets for attack, including attack by terrorists. That history has included the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 — until 9/11, the terrorist attack that claimed more American lives than any other. The history also includes the military build-up in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, which is the development that more than anything else radicalized Osama bin Laden and that later led to additional American casualties at Khobar Towers in 1996.
With Iran now commonly seen as America’s principal bête noire, what harm could Iran do to American interests? Given Iran’s meager capabilities for power projection, the answer boils down to possible attacks by Iran or its proxies against U.S. military forces in the region. So, U.S. military forces are in the Middle East in large part to counter possible attacks on U.S. military forces in the Middle East. The U.S. military presence there has become a self-licking ice cream cone.
Justin Logan: Why wait five to 10 years to leave?
The idea of withdrawing from the Middle East is gaining steam. It is terrific to see Eugene Gholz throw his hat in the ring alongside Patrick Porter and David Blagden and this writer. One particular reason is because our arguments relied on work that Eugene has been doing for decades, on strategy, oil and national security, and other related issues.
I read this article as receiving the baton from the 2020 Quincy report on “ending America’s misguided policy of domination” in the region. That report, having defined U.S. interests in the region as preventing the rise of a hegemon in the region and ensuring the region’s oil makes it to market, mostly left open the question what military strategy is needed to protect those interests. Gholz answers: not much of one. “No country can plausibly establish hegemony in the Middle East, nor can a regional power close the Strait of Hormuz and strangle the flow of oil.” The body of the paper bends over backward to show policymakers that these two claims are true.
He sprinkles in useful policy suggestions, such as focusing U.S. arms sales on “weapons that generally make it harder for armies to move in open territory,” something required of a country trying to establish hegemony in the region. Similarly, if the United States worries about Iran trying to close the Strait of Hormuz, it could invest a bit more effort in mine warfare. But in both cases, Gholz asserts persuasively that there just isn’t much to worry about here.
Because agreement is boring, some quibbles: Gholz asserts that “while a full military withdrawal from the region is possible on military grounds, political and other factors render it infeasible in the short run.” Why? Which political and other factors? Any policymaker willing to accept Gholz’s characterization of the dangers posed by the region is likely to have surmounted most of the political and other factors already. It seems like a passive-voice way of trying not to be too edgy, which isn’t something I’ve ever associated with the Gholz oeuvre.
Similarly, his suggestion that the United States withdraw “over a period of five to ten years” seems like a plan for never leaving. In our “discussions with regional powers,” they will launch a fusillade of ingenious hysteria, and eventually one of their nightmare scenarios will persuade Washington policymakers. If our interests don’t require our being there, we should leave. As soon as possible, which is far sooner than five to ten years. Change my mind.
Finally, Gholz suggests that if the United States withdraws, “a more sustainable regional order” may be the result. I doubt it.