The combined population of the 15 Middle East countries covered by this paper (414.3 million) represents slightly more than 5 per cent of the world’s total population (7.6 billion). Yet, in American political and media circles, the region is the subject of vastly more than just 5 per cent of US foreign policy discussions. Indeed, outside of North Korea, China and country-specific trade issues, an American watching the national evening news, or reading a major media outlet, might imagine that the Middle East is the entirety of US foreign policy. The Middle East has been a proclaimed ‘vital national interest’ since the Carter administration, and it remains a focal point of US defence planning to this day. In order to protect such vital national interests defence planners need predictable access to bases, ports and airspace in the region. The stability of military access drives every other element of US foreign policy in the region – diplomatic, economic and informational.
US military policy in the region is not simply based on an objective evaluation of the pros and cons, it is strongly influenced by the lobbying efforts of partner governments themselves. Indeed, governments in the region have long worked to shape and influence perceptions among policy elites and everyday Americans through firms that specialize in public relations and lobbying. These firms arrange meetings with members of Congress, key administration officials, research fellows at think-tanks, editorial boards, journalists, corporate executives and many other influencers. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – created in 1938 by Congress to clearly identify German propaganda efforts – all of these firms must register with the Department of Justice. According to the FARA list of lobbyists by country, as of June 2018, Saudi Arabia was being represented within the US by 28 PR firms; Qatar, 24; United Arab Emirates, 16; Iraq, 15 firms and individuals; Israel, seven; and Egypt, three. In addition, regional governments attempt to shape research agendas and elite opinions regarding the role and responsibilities of the US in the region by funding think-tanks in Washington, DC.
In 2011, the Obama administration first declared a US ‘pivot’ from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, but by the summer of 2015, a White House official acknowledged that ‘about eighty percent of our main meetings at the National Security Council have focused on the Middle East.’ The sudden rise of ISIS, the growth of AQAP, and coercive diplomacy efforts targeted at Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme, prevented a mental shift away from the Middle East, or a significant adjustment in assets from the region towards Asia-Pacific. In February 2018, the Trump administration declared that while the Pentagon would continue to prioritize Asia-Pacific, the rebalancing of troops and capabilities to that region was no longer US policy. Under the Trump administration, the Pentagon’s long-term strategic organizing principle is making shows of strength, specifically to Russia and China.
Nevertheless, as detailed above, the US military remains a robust permanent presence in the Middle East with greater numbers of troops now deployed there than under the previous administration. Those military assets and the regional relationships cultivated and sustained through formal and informal security cooperation programmes are crucial for achieving US objectives in the region. The US military is indeed ‘stuck’ in the region, with all of the associated human and financial costs, unintended consequences, and opportunities to shape and influence political and security outcomes. A fundamental shift in this military policy remains unimaginable at present.