The smart way out of the Middle East

The United States has been rebalancing away from the Middle East for almost a decade now. Weary of committing blood and treasure to a region whose problems persist and whose centrality to the global economy seems destined to fall, U.S. strategy has clearly shifted its focus to the Pacific.

And yet, the United States cannot quite quit the Middle East.

The U.S. maintains its presence there neither out of nostalgia for historic allies and partners nor out of inertia, but because the region remains integral to the global economy. Violence in the region — whether carried out by states or non-state actors — could still shake the world to its core. For that reason, the United States still keeps tens of thousands of troops and an array of bases in the Middle East. Thousands of U.S. diplomats, aid workers, intelligence officials and finance experts, among others, are spread out across the region.

Even so, that leaves the United States with a difficult challenge: How to protect its interests in the region when the world thinks the United States is already halfway out the door?

While East Asia will draw more U.S. attention in the coming years, the United States will find itself with still-significant interests in the Middle East, but with a reduced ability to advance them.

A couple of approaches seem attractive but aren’t actually viable. One is simply to quit the Middle East cold turkey and let partners learn their own limits. This has a certain logical appeal: It minimizes the direct costs to the United States, and it extricates the United States from a series of conflicts that it has been unable to solve — and in some cases, no country has been able to solve for centuries. But doing that doesn’t make the problems go away — and may make them much worse.

Partners and allies who feel much less secure in the absence of the United States are likely to take steps to enhance their security. In some cases, they make seek to appease countries and forces hostile to the United States. Even with a smaller Middle East footprint, the United States will still have adversaries inside the region and outside of it ­— and keeping them weak will remain a U.S. goal. Other countries will pursue their own strategies to protect their interests. If we are a small part of the equation, we will have little voice shaping their actions.

In other cases, our friends may wage dumb wars. As they proceed along a “learning curve,” partners are liable to stumble into quagmires, or worse. For example, six years after the Saudis began what was supposed to be a swift war in Yemen, they are still unable to extricate themselves. The war may have cost the Saudi treasury $100 billion and cost an estimated 100,000 Yemenis their lives. A Yemen that continues to spiral downward still harms U.S. interests directly and indirectly, including through threats to global shipping and terrorism. Arguing that the Saudis have to learn their lessons doesn’t do much of anything to insulate the United States from collateral damage when things go wrong.

A second approach is to hand off responsibility to some other power or collection of powers. That is essentially how the United Kingdom ceded responsibility for security in the Gulf to the United States in 1970. Yet, no power or collection of friendly powers is either able or willing to take the mantle. Europe’s collective military capacity is far too weak, and the powers of individual European states is weaker still. Regional security remains far beyond India’s ability or interest, despite millions of Indian citizens working in the Gulf and more than $150 billion per year in annual trade. Japan, South Korea, and Australia have quite limited capabilities, and they are preoccupied with China’s rising role in Asia. The list of candidates drops off pretty quickly after that.

So, in the absence of an easy out, the United States is left with making the best of staying in for a while. There are four things the United States should do to maximize its chances of success.

The first is to emphasize that, in absolute terms, the United States remains the most powerful external power in the region and will be for years to come. While many dismiss the U.S. commitment as diminishing, it still exceeds that of any other power and will for many years. The occasional Chinese or Russian port visit or high-level delegation elicits gasps and attention, but the United States has an array of state tools — diplomatic, military, and intelligence — that dwarf that of any competitor, and a global economic footprint on top of that which is huge by any measure. China seeks advantage by advancing state-owned enterprises that are in lockstep with state strategy, but as a package, China is no substitute for the United States, and it doesn’t want to be.

The second is to invest in partners’ success in the region. That partly means helping the improve education and training across the board — which is especially important as they seek to diversify their economies — but it also means helping make their governments and their defense establishments more capable and effective. The rising understanding that the oil age is ending has focused regional governments on the need to adapt to the future, requiring greater self-sufficiency in all aspects. The United States has an interest in facilitating this transition, and the more we plan together for it, the more likely we will be aligned as the transition occurs.

The third is to devote more attention to coordinating the activities of like-minded states. There are a lot of them, and they all look to the United States for leadership. The U.S. ability to organize multilateral activities far exceeds that of any other country, and the U.S. will retain this advantage for many years to come. It should use the next decade or more to emphasize the importance of joint activities and help ensure that they are truly joint, with genuine burden sharing by all parties.

The fourth is to do a better job prioritizing relationships in the region, recognizing that there are some places where the U.S. has greater interests — be they diplomatic economic, or security — and some where those interests are diminished. Differentiating more between our core relationships and our more peripheral ones will not only allow the U.S. to cut its investments in the latter group; it will also encourage countries to seek to be in the former group.

This all seems like more U.S. work in the Middle East in the midst of U.S. impatience for less. Yet, a declaration of indifference to the problems of the Middle East will not insulate the United States from them. The Middle East will matter to the United States and its partners around the world for years to come. The deliberate U.S. focus toward Asia makes it even more important that the United States be deliberate about what its more selective presence in the Middle East looks like.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank focusing on defense, national security and international relations issues.

Tags American diplomacy Forever wars Joe Biden administration Middle East Middle East peace Middle East strategy troop withdrawal United States foreign policy

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