by JUSTIN LOGAN
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy states that the United States “seeks a Middle East that is not a safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and that contributes to a stable global energy market.”1 These priorities echo those of prior administrations. Terrorism, Israel’s well-being, and oil are the main reasons the United States cares about the Middle East.2
In service of these interests, the United States spends tens of billions of dollars every year trying to manage the region’s politics. In one of the most careful estimates of the cost savings, Eugene Gholz concludes that jettisoning the Middle East mission would produce savings on the order of $65–70 billion per year.3
The United States also keeps tens of thousands of military personnel on bases in the region. From Bahrain to Egypt to Iraq to Kuwait to Qatar to Syria to the United Arab Emirates, the United States has dozens of military bases and installations across the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility.
The United States has also fought wars and engaged in costly diplomacy across the region. Although some wars, like the 2011 air campaign in Libya, are not directly related to oil, Israel, or terrorism, the two wars in Iraq, the U.S. involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen, and the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran all grew in part from those underlying worries. Similarly, bipartisan devotion to the Saudi royal family and the Israeli government are tied to beliefs about the region’s importance to Americans.
These costly policies are puzzling because, on paper, the region is a strategic backwater. Its GDP constitutes 3.3 percent of world GDP, compared to 32.5 percent in the Western Hemisphere and 25 percent each in Europe and East Asia.4 The Middle East’s population is between 3.5 and 5 percent of the world total, depending on how one counts.5 Even if one country were to dominate—or conquer—a region with those economic and human resources, it could not pose a serious military threat to the United States. In order to think that the region has great importance to U.S. national security, policymakers have relied on murky theories about energy economics, the regional balance of power, and the threat of terrorism.
None of these theories justify current U.S. policy in the region. U.S. interests in the Middle East do not require stationing American troops in the region. Moreover, the ideas justifying a permanent troop presence there have been wrong for decades; they did not become wrong once the United States became a net exporter of petroleum, or once Israel developed Iron Dome, or once Al-Qaeda was dispersed in 2001 and 2002.
The goal of this paper is not to lay out a detailed plan or timeframe for withdrawing U.S. troops from the region, but rather to scrutinize the justifications for U.S. policy in the region to date. Though mostly unspoken, these justifications are bad in their best rendering. If there is no good justification for a costly and destructive government policy, it should end.
Read the full paper here.
Justin Logan (@JustinTLogan) is director of programs and a research associate at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University.