I say it so much and it’s so sad, but we have $7 trillion in the Middle East. You might as well throw it out the window. Seven trillion dollars.
President Donald Trump, 21 June 2018
The sentiment expressed above by President Trump reflects frustrations shared by several presidents over the past three decades: the rigidness of approach, the seemingly thankless allies, the suboptimal outcomes, and both the human and financial costs. This paper addresses these frustrations through three broad questions:
- What is the current scope of the US military’s presence in the Middle East?
- Have US policy objectives been achieved in the post-Cold War era?
- What are the benefits, costs and consequences of recent US military policy in the Middle East?
While this last question has been the subject of some debate by American scholars and pundits, the full scope and mission of the military in this relatively unstable region remains largely unexamined and unquestioned. An unusual combination of widespread bipartisan support for military policy in the Middle East, limited congressional oversight of the US armed forces more generally, low public interest in foreign policy, and Israel/Palestine-issue fatigue has created and enabled a situation in which there is a lack of honest scrutiny and appraisal of this policy.
The US military presence in the region is not only physical in the form of troop deployments, planes stationed at air bases, or naval port visits. Its presence is also furthered and reinforced by security cooperation programmes in the form of weapons sales, training and advice, and essential logistics and intelligence support. The reciprocal relationship between the Pentagon and most Middle East countries assures US military access to the region to support a range of activities and operations. In exchange, the US provides military and diplomatic support – or, at least tolerance – for partner countries’ own political and security requirements. The need for reliable access to bases, ports and airspace throughout the Middle East is itself the foremost policy concern for the US. In practice, without the consent of host-nation governments the US military could not exercise the latent and direct influence it has within the region. However, since predictable military access is the ultimate objective, the United States has willingly partnered with local governments and undertaken military operations that have harmed certain US interests over the longer-term. This paper attempts to detail and understand the extent of this co-dependency that has emerged because of the US military’s access requirements.
There is no universally accepted definition of ‘the Middle East’. However, for the purposes of this paper, the term refers to: Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain and Iran. US Central Command (CENTCOM) is responsible for military operations in all of these countries, excluding Turkey and Israel. These two countries fall under the remit of US European Command (EUCOM), due to Turkey’s membership of NATO and diplomatic sensitivities regarding Israel and its location within the Muslim-majority region. This paper does not include the countries of Central Asia, where US military operations are also the responsibility of CENTCOM. Finally, the geographic breadth of this paper incorporates the major regional waterways – the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea – upon which there has been a near-continuous US naval presence since the establishment of the regionally-focused Fifth Fleet in 1995.
Map 1: Estimated US troop numbers stationed in the Middle East in 2017
Wherever possible, this paper highlights relevant official government data, the highest-quality non-governmental data sources and the latest social science research to enable readers to reach their own conclusions.
A brief history
An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
President Jimmy Carter, 23 January 1980
The US military has maintained a significant and permanent military presence throughout the Middle East since 1980, when President Carter made the above declaration. At that time, the administration was concerned about the possibility of the Soviet Army seizing the Khuzestan oil fields in revolutionary Iran. The Middle East became an area of vital and growing US national interest mainly because of the regional politics that caused oil-price shocks in 1973/74 and 1979, the fall of the Shah, and the US-brokered Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. However, at that time, the United States had no forward operating bases and a poor understanding of the cultural and political context of the governments in the region. As Carter’s number-two Pentagon official Robert Komer declared at the time: ‘The viability of this military policy depends critically on our access to facilities in the area… we do not seek permanent garrisons or sovereign base areas as existed in the colonial past. Instead we are seeking cooperation with friendly states.’
After several bureaucratic false starts and inadequate congressional funding, on 1 January 1983, CENTCOM emerged with a newfound strategic appreciation for the region. Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida, it has consistently been the most active of all the geographic commands that have been established by the Unified Command Plan – the Pentagon document that defines the missions and geographic responsibilities for the military. CENTCOM’s initial primary responsibility was to plan and prepare for President Carter’s original intended mission, which its then-commander General George Crist colourfully proclaimed to be: ‘to go to Iran and wage World War III against the Russians in a conflict restricted solely to our theater of operations.’
CENTCOM has since grown tremendously in size and now oversees an enormous range and number of consequential military-led activities and combat operations in the Middle East. These include operations that fell under the Clinton administration’s dual containment strategy (targeted at Iran and Iraq); the George W. Bush administration’s regime change in Iraq and subsequent aspiration for regional democratization; the Obama administration’s partial rapprochement with Iran and its focus on the emergence of terrorist ‘safe havens’ that presaged the August 2014 war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); and the Trump administration’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal.
In theory, the State Department is supposed to take the lead in developing, implementing and overseeing foreign policy in the Middle East. However, the Department of Defense via CENTCOM is the predominant foreign policy voice and the first point of contact for concerned regional government officials (including those serving outside of defence ministries). CENTCOM is also the practical coordinator of US governmental efforts, through its theatre campaign plans. CENTCOM officials make every effort to collaborate with US civilian agencies in the region, but CENTCOM’s considerable powers stemming from its diplomatic and military relations and unmatched personnel and resources, have consistently made it the most powerful and substantial US government actor in the Middle East. In her close examination of the roles and responsibility of these combatant commanders, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest described them as ‘the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Empire’s proconsuls – well-funded, semi-autonomous, unconventional centers of U.S. foreign policy.’