2. Domestic Academic and Political Debates
Despite being in a region of significant political tensions, the existence of a large US military presence in the Middle East has been widely accepted by the American public over the past quarter of a century. The enduring military-to-military relationships the US has developed have survived countless diplomatic disputes. Other than obvious peaks during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, the scope and size of US troops stationed or rotated through the region remains relatively unchanged from that of 25 years ago. In the US, domestic academic and political debates about the role and effectiveness of the country’s military policy in the region intensified only after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Arab Spring. In 2005, former CIA director John Deutch, writing in the New York Times, observed that since the US was not achieving its key objectives in Iraq, and the region was no more peaceful or stable as a result of the increased US presence inside Iraq, American troops should be swiftly redeployed to the homeland. Deutch contended that this would allow the US to focus on its security interests in East Asia and force itself to fully engage that region through its diplomacy and economic power.
The debate on US military positioning around the globe has coalesced around two major schools of thought. The first of these, as expressed by Deutch, is best represented in academic circles as one of ‘offshore balancing’. This strategic concept, most prominently espoused by realist scholars of international relations, contends that the existence of forward-deployed US forces creates dependencies on American security guarantees, which regional governments take advantage of and use to influence policymaking in Washington. Offshore balancing also proclaims that an outsized American presence in the Middle East engenders retaliation against the US and its interests in the region and beyond. The practical strategic adjustment these scholars call for is to significantly reduce the US military footprint in the region and to redeploy those forces and capabilities in the global commons (the open seas, skies and outer space), where the US enjoys a relatively dominant position given its unmatched power projection capabilities and technological supremacy.
The alternative school of thought is that of the forward engagers. They claim that the US needs a large-scale military presence in the Middle East to achieve American vital interests. From this perspective, fewer security commitments and a smaller military footprint would reduce US influence in shaping the choices and political direction of governments in the Middle East. Moreover, as seemingly unstable as the region has been, if there were a reduction in the visible US support for its partners and allies in the region, it would cause far greater uncertainty and potentially more chaos.
Forward engagers believe that only a robust US military presence can provide the degree of stability crucial to assure a predictable supply of oil and natural gas from the Middle East. If the United States pulls out of the region, as proposed by John Deutch, it would increase the likelihood of three outcomes that could damage the oil infrastructure of exporting states or make shipping oil too perilous: the emergence of a dominant regional hegemon that controls energy supplies; the internal political collapse of Saudi Arabia; and the forced closure of the Strait of Hormuz. As is detailed below, Iran has repeatedly threatened to do precisely this in retaliation for perceived US threats.
The 2008 presidential election saw a genuine national debate between senators Barack Obama and John McCain, regarding the Iraq War and the utility and presence of large ground forces in the region. Obama pledged to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq and pursue a diplomacy-first approach vis-à-vis Iran, while McCain promised ‘victory’ in Iraq before any troops would return home and raised the prospect of bombing Iran. Obama won that debate at the polls and adhered to the status of forces agreement signed by the Bush administration in 2008 to wind down US troop presence in Iraq. However, since the summer of 2014, President Obama re-deployed an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 additional troops to the region in support of the counter-ISIS campaign.
Though support varies depending on the mission, Americans are deeply split when it comes to US military policy in the region (see figure 1 and 2). However, opinion polls of US elite circles, like those conducted by the Chicago Council, show much greater support for a sustained military role in the Middle East and for all missions.
Figure 1: When it comes to the US role in the Middle East, do you think the US should…?
Figure 2: Regardless of whether or not you think the US should have a military role in the Middle East, which of the following do you think is the best reason for staying involved in the region?
President Donald Trump has repeatedly and forcefully advocated less US military involvement in the region, but to no avail. His populist rhetoric shows that he objects almost entirely to the financial burden that it places upon the United States. This was coarsely set forth by Trump in April 2018:
Countries that are in the area, some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States… they wouldn’t last a week. The United States is embarrassingly into the Middle East as of a few months ago, as you’ve heard me say before…And yet we’ve spent $7 trillion in the Middle East and we’ve got nothing for it. Nothing, less than nothing, as far as I’m concerned. That’s over an 18-year period. The countries that are there, that you all know very well, are immensely wealthy.
Despite President Trump’s strident belief that Middle East governments are ‘ripping off’ the US, and that the United States should receive some form of reimbursement or that US troops should return home, in the first 18 months of his presidency he has directed no noticeable shift in military policy towards the region. He has reiterated his call for a change in the US approach, but presented no actual material policy changes in his first National Security Strategy, or in the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. In fact, the size of America’s military footprint has only increased since he entered office, and there have been no known reimbursements in exchange for US troops and capabilities stationed in the region.
That President Trump has proven unwilling to or incapable of altering America’s military policy in the Middle East – all the while decrying it publicly and repeatedly – demonstrates the policy’s bipartisan political endorsement, as well as the unspoken approval of Pentagon officials. Even when a president has the support of their own political base to change this policy, they may struggle to do so. Thus, the status quo Middle East strategy that President Trump inherited remains largely in place to this day, albeit with a slightly larger military footprint. The reason Trump has made no practical steps towards advancing his stated positions is that to do so could rupture relations with regional governments, which must be placated to permit US military access to their country’s sovereign territory.