The beginning of the end of a US role in the Middle East?
President Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops in northeastern Syria brings to mind Great Britain’s 1968 retreat “East of Suez.” It marked an inflection point, a final abandoning of empire given London’s limited financial resources, lapsed political will and heightened anti-colonial hostility.
The United Kingdom came to terms with a diminished global role from positions “East of Suez” – i.e., beyond the Suez Canal – and left it to America be the guarantor of the post-World War II international order.
Is the U.S. approaching its own “East of Suez” moment? In the U.S. case, the result is not a consequence of decline per se, but of radically altered U.S. domestic political circumstances (e.g., “America First”) and deepened multi-layered conflict in the region. For better or worse, President Trump’s determination to reduce troops deployed overseas, from Afghanistan to Syria, is part of an effort to make good on campaign pledges. Explaining his troop reductions in northeast Syria, Trump reiterated this imperative: “I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home.”
Trump’s latest pull-back decision in Syria – in effect, leaving U.S. Kurdish allies who led the charge against the Islamic State (ISIS) to the tender mercies of the Turks – followed a December 2018 troop reduction in Syria and two unanswered Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia. One result: The desperate Kurds shifting alignments to Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The current mess is occurring against the backdrop of U.S.-Turkish relations strained by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s suspicions of American complicity in the 2016 failed military coup, his courting of Putin and his decision to purchase Russian S-400 missiles, the U.S. decision to expel Turkey from the F-35 project in retaliation, and the fight against ISIS in Syria.
These developments are but the latest in a calamitous, tragic pattern of U.S. self-inflicted wounds helping to catalyze widespread disorder in the region, starting with the 2003 Iraq war and the chain of disastrous events it set in motion. Those include the Sunni-Shia (aka Saudi-Iranian) internecine conflict; the deceptive, short-lived 2011 “Arab Spring” that quickly became the Arab Winter; the blundered intervention in Libya, and then Syria’s deadly morass.
In case there was any doubt, the dismal results illuminate the stark reality that U.S. ability to shape outcomes has disappeared – even after $6 trillion spent trying. Two U.S. aircraft carriers and a ring of bases in Bahrein, Qatar and Kuwait have had little impact on the region’s wars, from Libya to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. A militarized policy has fostered a mindset where, since we have a big hammer, every problem is a nail.
It’s not hard to see our own parallels with countries we view retrospectively as “obviously” having overreached in earlier eras, such as Russia in Afghanistan, Britain and France at the Suez Canal in 1956, or Hitler’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
Now we are beginning to see the cost of Trump’s mostly successful efforts to keep his campaign promises. The simplistic “bring the boys home” – a legitimate impulse – shows that in foreign policy how and when you do things matter as much as what you do.
Trump’s instincts reflect a current national exhaustion and doubt, the psychological impact of the 2008 financial crisis and endless Middle East wars. Optimists may portray current shifts as just a midcourse correction, while pessimists see it as a long-term trend. But the public appears to have lost any appetite for mission adventures.
Could it be that the proverbial man on the street has more common sense than the political elite? They seem to be saying, in effect, “After $6 trillion and 18 years of bombing Muslims, what do we have to show for it? The Middle East is a bigger disaster than ever. Has terrorism been reduced or just recycled? We have plenty of our own problems.”
The parallels today with Britain’s retreats are inexact. But a generation of unwinnable Mideast wars shows us the idiocy and expense of social engineering in alien cultures and societies. Behind it lies, exactly as it once did in Britain, a sense of mission civilisatrice and inflated national exceptionalism. No exceptions to the cycles of history: All empires have succumbed to such narcissistic conceits.
However overly simplistic, there is an underlying logic to Trump’s impulses. The shale revolution, which has led to the U.S.’s new status as the world’s top producer of oil and gas, has fundamentally altered the geopolitics of energy. The center of gravity of global hydrocarbon production has already shifted from the Persian Gulf to the Western Hemisphere. Canadian oil sands, a reforming Mexico and Brazil’s ultra-deep water reserves all point to a new post-OPEC reality.
Of course, it is still a global oil market. But 75 percent of Mideast oil is exported to Asia; China, Japan, South Korea and India have a growing stake in the Middle East. Yet, a disruption and price spike anywhere is still a price spike everywhere. A fair question that Trump asks is, why don’t those who buy Gulf oil play more of a security-guarantor role?
Polling data suggest that Americans generally favor a more participatory world in which governments, reflecting popular will, also treat their people well. But they want other nations to share the burdens of responsibility for world order, too. The penchant for throwing good money after bad has breathtaking pedigree, from the Vietnam war to Afghanistan.
We cannot and should not, as then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams put it in his 1821 Fourth of July speech, “go abroad seeking monsters to destroy.” The U.S. has always done best when leading by example, being the “shining city on the hill” rather than trying to export it.
The problem this time around, however, is that, unlike Britain’s “East of Suez” retreat, there is no obvious replacement, no nation with the economic and military power and comparable values to which to pass the baton.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the under-secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.