US withdrawal from the Middle East doesn’t spell doomsday
As U.S. troop withdrawals from Saudi Arabia echo the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, some foreign policy professionals have sounded the alarm. One recent report published by the Atlantic Council, a prominent think tank in Washington, D.C., lays out the risks: U.S. allies will feel abandoned, the U.S. will be unable to guard its strategic interests, and China will fill the void. But are these concerns warranted?
The report criticizes the potential inability for the U.S. to pursue “value-based interests” such as human rights promotion. But this errs by overstating the leverage which the American military presence provides. Human rights promotion is not a function of U.S. military power, but instead a function of American soft power, both from the State Department and from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Furthermore, military intervention undermines Washington’s ability to promote American values in the region. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations are well-documented, but U.S. intervention in the Iran-Saudi rivalry requires that this be overlooked.
A recurring claim throughout the report is the importance of a U.S. military presence to protect trade, primarily oil. But has an aggressive U.S. policy delivered on this? Consider the most recent disruptions to oil in the region. U.S. sanctions against Iran precipitated attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities in 2019, and the U.S. military presence failed to deter this. That wasn’t a function of how robust the U.S. military presence was. It was the departure from diplomacy that endangered oil flows. As the Biden administration is currently proving, a return to diplomacy can be coupled with military drawdowns.
Partner countries may want the U.S. to retain a military presence. But this doesn’t mean it’s in the U.S.’s interest to do so. Whether it be the UAE or Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries have every incentive to ensnare the U.S. in regional entanglements to bolster their own position. U.S. security interests are narrow, limited to preventing nuclear proliferation and counterterrorism. The former is best resolved diplomatically and the latter doesn’t require the stationing of U.S. missile defenses, carrier groups, or permanent garrisons abroad.
The report unintentionally provides a sensible forecast of how regional security would shift after a U.S. departure, warning that partner countries will simply, “[S]eek out alternative arrangements to meet their security needs.” That’s actually a good thing. The U.S., by acting as security guarantor, has inadvertently discouraged regional diplomacy. Rifts between Iran and Saudi Arabia grew due to U.S. backing the latter, which imperiled both civilians in the region and oil markets in the ensuing proxy war.
When U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia shifted towards neutrality under President Biden, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman responded by making diplomatic overtures to Iran. Likewise, the Trump administration’s success with the Abraham Accords was not enabled by the U.S. military presence, but by affinities between states balancing against Iran. These “alternative arrangements” are poised to deliver more regional stability than years of U.S. intervention.
As the report states, East Asia does not enjoy oil self-sufficiency, which makes U.S. allies vulnerable to disruptions. But this same vulnerability applies to China as well. An oil crisis in the Middle East hurts an oil-importing adversary as much as it does our friends. Furthermore, China has enjoyed years of stable maritime flows from the Middle East at U.S. expense. China stands to lose far more from a Middle East oil crisis than the U.S.
The report also conflates reducing the U.S. military presence with ceding the region to China, though it admits China’s primary interest is a mercantile one. Why then does the U.S. require a military presence to stay economically relevant in the region? If China were to adopt a military role in the region, it would incur the same costs which the U.S. currently bears. A U.S. that is militarily disengaged is not in any worse position than a military disengaged China.
The opponents of withdrawing from the Middle East have recycled the same arguments. They misinterpret the much-needed reevaluation of our military role with a retreat to Fortress America. The troop drawdowns in recent weeks are a step in the right direction. Conventional wisdom will continue to produce the same conventional results which were seen in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. It’s time to give the unconventional a chance.
Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities. The author’s views are their own and not the official positions of the US Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.