Since World War II, the United States has been involved in a series of crises and wars in the Middle East on the premise of protecting U.S., Western, or global interests, or purportedly all three combined. Since antiquity, the Middle East has been the hub of three continents, and of three great religions, and the maritime intersection between East and West.
In modern times American strategic concerns in no particular order were usually the following:
1) Guaranteeing reliable oil supplies for the U.S. economy.
2) Ensuring that no hostile power—most notably the Soviet Union between 1946-1989 and local Arab or Iranian strongmen thereafter—gained control of the Middle East and used its wealth and oil power to disrupt the economies and security of the Western world, Europe in particular.
3) Preventing radical Islamic terrorists from carving out sanctuaries and bases of operations to attack the United States or its close allies.
4) Aiding Israel to survive in a hostile neighborhood.
5) Keeping shipping lanes in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and the Persian Gulf open and accessible to world commerce at the historical nexus of three continents.
6) To the extent we could articulate our interests, U.S. policy was reductionist and simply deterred any other major power for any reason from dominating the quite distant region.
7) Occasionally the United States sought to limit or stop the endemic bloodletting of the region.
Those various reasons explain why we tended to intervene in nasty places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria. Yet despite the sometimes humanitarian pretenses about our inventions in the Middle East, we should remember that we most certainly did not go commensurately into central Africa or South America to prevent mass killings, genocides, or gruesome civil wars.
But two questions now arise in the 21st century: to what degree do strategic reasons remain for a strong U.S. ground presence in the Middle East and, in terms of cost-benefit analyses, how much material, human, and psychic U.S. investment is necessary to protect our interests to the extent they still matter in the region?
These questions cannot be answered in a short essay. They are the topics of constant discussions among U.S. planners and offer no easy solutions. That said, our old strategic reasons do not necessarily still apply.
Changing Needs, New Realities
The United States does not need Middle East natural gas or oil. Europe does. China does even more.
Certainly, it may be in the larger economic interests of America to keep moderately priced oil flowing from the Middle East. But disruptions, cartels, and embargoes do not matter to the United States in the degree they did during the last half-century.
This reality is especially germane when the European Union, larger and nearly as rich as the United States, simply will not provide for its own security, despite its proximity to the region and its dependence upon it. China likewise freeloads on the U.S. Navy’s deterrent presence in waters off the Middle East.
These new realities do not necessarily mean we should vacate the region entirely, only that we should be far less likely to intervene when others have far more at stake.
Given the size, complexity, factions, and violence of the Middle East, all outside would-be hegemons have had a difficult time consolidating power there.
The Soviet Union failed. It is no exaggeration to state that nearly every foreign power that has had a base in the region was eventually kicked out of it—with the exception so far of the United States in the Gulf. Contemporary Russia does not have the resources to control the region and can only agitate and offend others rather than consolidate a lucrative position. China’s Belt and Road initiative in the Middle East, if it follows the paradigm in Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, likely will not pencil out.
The Iranians, Saddam Hussein, and earlier Pan-Arabism messianic leaders all eventually failed in consolidating the Middle East to bully the larger world. Sometimes U.S. intervention has helped stymie thugs and killers like Saddam Hussein and ISIS, and may again through its overwhelming air, cyber, and drone power. But in general, it will be difficult for Russia, Iran, or Turkey to acquire greater global influence by carving out localized hegemonies in the Middle East.
Thus, it may not be so imperative for the United States to intervene on the rationale that if we don’t, others will. Intervening in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria presents more costs than benefits. Any success in weeding out terrorist enclaves or removing thugs is outweighed by often costly human and material investments, subsequent problems with immigration and refugees, and almost no reciprocity or even gratitude from the parties who are supposedly the beneficiaries of American humanitarian or military assistance.
Israel is wealthier, larger, and more secure than at any period in its past. Three recent developments—fossil fuel self-sufficiency, new anti-Iranian alliances with its former enemies in the Arab world, and global weariness with the perpetual victimization claims of the Palestinians—have given Israel both new confidence and options. Israel’s nuclear deterrence can guarantee its survival against Islamic enemies, and in the post-Cold War era it faces few threats from a nuclear Russia or China.
The United States can continue to sell and bestow military assistance to Israel, and maintain our close alliance, but not intervene in the region on the premise that without our immediate local presence Israel is in danger.
World commerce long has been shifting to the Pacific. The Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf will remain vital to world commerce but not as decisive as in the past. If China is acquiring long-term port leases at key harbors in Europe, it is hard to worry that it poses more dangers by doing the same in the Middle East. And China’s barbaric treatment of Muslims at home makes it unlikely to become popular in the Middle East. It is hard to know exactly what Vladimir Putin is getting out of his Syrian quagmire other than global attention and a desire to play Soviet-style lord among murderous clients.
In sum, for now a strong naval presence, and U.S. air bases in the Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf states keep the peace, at least as we envision keeping the peace. Some ground troops protect those assets. But the idea that the United States will ever send a huge expeditionary army to the Middle East increasingly seems absurd.
Finally, there are the much neglected but powerful emotional and human factors.
We hear nonstop that the Arab, or the Iranian, or the Muslim world at large does not like the West in general and the United States in particular. For some 60 years, American television screens have blared out nightly images of crowds of screaming fanatics with signs of hatred of America—almost all of them, when emotions subside, otherwise eager to claim some sort of fast-track victim or refugee status to get into the country they say they despise.
But emotions that drive policies are not just one-way.
Middle Easterners ignore that three generations of Americans have become exhausted by their antics in the Middle East, by the Iranian hostage debacle, 9/11, the oil embargos, the anti-Semitic hatred of Israel, the costly interventions, and the hysterics that seem to characterize the region. Americans don’t see why any of their children should be killed or be maimed there.
When we say Americans are tired of endless wars, the subtext is that we are mostly sick of the Middle East. We certainly don’t necessarily see any benefit from welcoming in tens of thousands of refugees from the region, many of whom do not necessarily seem to appreciate Western religious diversity, ecumenical traditions, and multiracial and gender equality—and will likely upon arrival lodge complaints against the United States for some -ism or -ology that they have levered from the therapeutic Left.
Europe’s immigration policies are the canaries in the Western mine. Few of the 800 million in Europe and the United States privately believe that Europe is richer, more secure, and more enlightened by welcoming in millions of Middle Easterners who seems to resent their hosts and equate assimilation and integration with cultural betrayal. The result is that there is almost no public support for any action in the Middle East unless it is directly tied to protecting Americans or ensuring the region’s endemic pathologies do not boil over to harm America and its interests in general.
All these considerations are no doubt known to the Trump Administration. The current stand-off with Iran is the first Middle East crisis in which neither oil nor Arab anti-Americanism factor in much.
Trump no doubt has learned that neither isolationism nor interventionism ensures American security, and is trying to craft the middle ground of principled realism, or don’t tread on me nationalism. Translated in the present crisis, that policy likely presages a kind of stand-off—tit-for-tat air strikes on Iranian infrastructure for as long as Iran wishes to escalate attacks on U.S. bases or embassies or assets.
The administration seems intent on avoiding the appeasement of Obama and also the interventionism of the Bush years. So far, it has managed to help destroy ISIS without getting into a shooting war with Turkey over the Kurds or knee-deep in the quagmires of Syria. The administration wants to find a way out of both Iraq and Afghanistan that does not destroy U.S. deterrence, a quest that ultimately depends on how we define deterrence, both regionally and globally.
In other words, the United States is trying to square a circle, remaining strong and deterring our dangerous elements, but to do so for U.S. interests—interests that increasingly seem to be fewer and fewer in the Middle East.
Or in simpler terms, what exactly is the Middle East in the middle of anymore?