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Will Biden draw down the US military presence in the Middle East?

A posture review is forthcoming, and pressure is building for withdrawal.

Analysis | Middle East

While top U.S. officials over the past month have appeared eager to reassure traditional Arab partners in the Persian Gulf about Washington’s continued commitment to their security after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the debate over future policy — whether Washington should begin to disengage militarily from the region — remains unresolved. Until the Biden administration releases its Force Posture Review, America's intentions remain opaque.

In late September, President Joe Biden dispatched his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to hold talks with key Gulf partners. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted a roundtable with members of the U.S.-backed Gulf Cooperation Council, gathering in New York during the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. And while Blinken assured his guests that the administration remained “committed to sustainable, long-term relationships with all of our GCC partners,” the reaction was summed up in the question reportedly posed by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan: “What’s the plan?”

While Prince Faisal’s question pertains specifically to the future of U.S. policy toward Riyadh’s chief regional rival, Iran, particularly if negotiations over the rejuvenation of the Iran nuclear deal collapse, the absence of a clear U.S. agenda towards the Gulf is one of the big questions looming over Washington foreign-policy circles.

With speculation over the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, a larger debate has emerged in Washington, inciting a call for the continuation of American military supremacy in the world. “The starting point for a new internationalism should be a clear recognition that although foreign policy begins at home, it cannot end there," said Richard Haass, former American diplomat, and president of the Council of Foreign Relations. “In the absence of a new American internationalism, the likely outcome will be a world that is less free, more violent, and less willing or able to tackle common challenges.”

Speaking on the future of a U.S. military presence in the region duringa recent event on maritime security in the Gulf, Gulf expert Dr. Geoffrey Gresh said “the United States is still going to be front and center, and as we know, on the Gulf side by certain estimates there are around 50,000 U.S. troops spread, if you include Turkey, Jordan, and the like spread across the Middle East region …  so clearly the United States has a vested and long-term interest, and this is going to play out significantly down the road.” While the points from Haass and Gresh are markedly different, they represent a larger school of thought in American foreign policy that the United States must stay in the Middle East to protect its interests.

But many experts have come to oppose this viewpoint, representing a growing movement for ending America's forever wars and pursuing a more rigorous diplomatic strategy. In fact, the beginning of the U.S. drawdown in the Middle East has led many to believe that it creates better opportunities for diplomatic channels between regional leaders.

“Biden’s pending withdrawal from the region predictably unlocked an untapped potential for the Middle East actors to resolve their problems on their own and to try to build structures necessary to ensure a more peaceful and stable region,” said the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi in the wake of the Baghdad Summit.

Indeed, a Quincy Institute issue brief authored by the late Mark Perry pushes back at the idea that expanding the American internationalism doctrine protects U.S. interests in the region: “The claim that a smaller military footprint in the Middle East would undermine U.S. security interests actually reflects a concern that a reduced force presence would undermine the interests of combatant commanders, who wish to maintain access to resources.”

These arguments represent a growing consensus in the U.S. foreign policy debate: realistically,the U.S. presence in the region overall has been destabilizing, and by withdrawing, it opens the door for regional leaders to engage diplomatically. The school of thought also contends that there is no real threat to the United States by withdrawing, only hurt feelings among combatant commanders.

Beyond the arguments to stay or leave, many in Washington are now arguing about the tenability of a U.S. “pivot” from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. “There is some uncertainty regarding the best strategy and tools for execution but there is one trend that is unmistakable regarding policy execution that shows a clear movement of U.S. military resources from the Middle East into the Indo-pacific,” said Bilal Y. Saab, a former Pentagon official and Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, speaking at the aforementioned maritime security event.

How this pivot manifests will depend on the anticipated Global Force Posture review released by the Biden administration in the coming months. While the review may show a change in a U.S. military force posture, the larger question of long-term commitment to the Gulf in areas such as multilateral cooperation with partners, supporting the navies of Gulf allies, and securing safe passage for trade remain unclear.

Anwar Gargash, a top diplomatic advisor to the president of the UAE,expressed his frustrations regarding the U.S. commitment to the Gulf. “We will see in the coming period really what is going on with regards to America's footprint in the region. I don't think we know yet, but Afghanistan is definitely a test and to be honest it is a very worrying test,” he said

Gargash’s remarks pose a dire question for the role Gulf states play as Washington rethinks the U.S. military presence in the region, while also digging at the insecurity felt from Gulf leaders as momentum for ending U.S. military involvement abroad continues.

Ultimately, whatever the uncertainty may be in foreign policy circles, the United Statesis at a crossroads. The time has come for the Biden administration to rethink its military presence in the region. The debate boils down to whether Washington wants to continue its military supremacy in the Middle East or engage in policy based on restraint, pursuing a more rigorous diplomatic strategy around the region and world.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on October 14, 2021. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett]
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