A Prognosis for American Involvement in the Middle East

There is little doubt that the American approach to the Middle East has been undergoing significant change and will continue to do so. This trend might represent the outcome of the American public’s cost-benefit analysis of US military interventions and the expenditure of US diplomatic and economic resources. That calculation has evidently caused a significant domestic public opinion shift against major new military interventions in the region. In taking account of the evolving sentiment on US policy in the Middle East, the incoming Biden administration might alter it marginally but not dramatically. Yet, there remain potential threats to US vital interests as well as unexpected events that will generate headlines and interest-group activism. These might compel any administration to undertake significant policy responses, including military action.

Decline of US Public Support for Large-scale Regional Intervention

The American public’s willingness to support extensive US involvement in the region eroded significantly following the decision of the George W. Bush Administration to initiate a major military invasion of Iraq to overthrow the regime of President Saddam Hussein. Not only did the prime justification for the invasion—the ending of retained weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs—prove false, but the invasion cost over 4,500 US military deaths without improving the US strategic position in the region in any significant way. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein arguably strengthened Iran’s influence in Iraq and paved the way for Iranian gains in the broader region. In addition, the intervention produced political backlash in Iraq that led, ultimately, to the creation of insurgent groups that evolved into the Islamic State terrorist organization. There also seems to be American public disappointment that direct military involvement for nearly 20 years has failed to defeat the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which hosted the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Although successive administrations have sought to limit the influence of Russia and China, there appears to have been some degree of recognition that these two powers have expanded and will continue to augment their influence in the region.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein arguably strengthened Iran’s influence in Iraq and paved the way for Iranian gains in the broader region. In addition, the intervention produced political backlash in Iraq that led, ultimately, to the creation of insurgent groups that evolved into the Islamic State terrorist organization.

Other trends have accelerated the shift in domestic public thinking. As a prominent example, American dependence on hydrocarbon imports from the region has declined dramatically over the past decade. In 2018, in large part on the strength of the domestic industry of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)—a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock—the United States emerged as the world’s top oil producer. Still, most experts assess that fossil fuels will remain a significant staple of the global economy, despite the emphasis on increasing the use of renewable energy sources. Threats to the exportation of hydrocarbon products from the Gulf will likely remain an American national security priority for at least several decades.

As another example, the United States has expended significant diplomatic energy over the past 40 years to try to broker a permanent settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet the effort, while helping to produce Palestinian autonomy, has not resolved that conflict to date—perhaps making American diplomacy seem fruitless and incapable of breaking the impasse. The difficulty of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ostensibly was a factor in the Trump Administration’s decision to focus instead on brokering normalization agreements between Israel and those Arab states with which Israel had not already signed peace treaties. The efforts culminated in the September 2020 normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Implications for Policy Going Forward

Military Presence and Intervention. Evolving US attitudes on policy in the region might potentially act to constrain future policy options. American Middle East policy generally did not seem to factor prominently in the 2020 presidential election, and there was little debate during the 2020 presidential campaign about the Trump Administration’s drawdown of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Trump Administration’s decision to reduce direct US military involvement in those countries appears, at least in part, to be a product of the public perceptions discussed above.

However, it is evident that there is a broad consensus for continued vigilance, including the use of military operations, to counter terrorist groups that operate in and from the region as well as deter and punish users of WMDs. Despite the public perception that the post-September 11 US involvement in Afghanistan has gone on too long, the memory of the attacks still looms large in public consciousness. There has been no measurable public sentiment to relax American vigilance against Al-Qaeda and against one of its descendants, the so-called Islamic State. A question for the incoming Biden administration and for others in the future is how to reconcile the apparent consensus for military disengagement from the region with the requirements of basing Special Operations and other forces that might need to be within quick striking distance of identified terrorist high value targets. There also seems to be little dissent within the United States on the use of force against actors who use or threaten the use of WMDs. The Trump Administration took some action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people. The strikes, carried out mostly by cruise missiles, came despite the decisions by both the Obama and Trump Administrations not to take action that is directly intended to bring about the overthrow of the Assad regime. Those decisions appeared to reflect reticence in the US public and political establishment for significant military actions that aimed to alter the power structure of the region.

A question for the incoming Biden administration and for others in the future is how to reconcile the apparent consensus for military disengagement from the region with the requirements of basing Special Operations and other forces that might need to be within quick striking distance of identified terrorist high value targets.

The Iran Factor. One issue on which there is potential for enduring consensus is the need to address the multiplicity of perceived threats to American interests posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, although there is not necessarily agreement on the employment of various policy tools to blunt that threat. Broadly, some—including members of the Trump Administration—have sought to pressure Iran into significant concessions on many of the fronts where Washington and Tehran are at odds. Foremost among them are Iran’s nuclear program and its interventions throughout the region that are seen as threats to US allies such as Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies. The Obama Administration sought to both engage and pressure Iran to reach common ground on the most pressing issue, its nuclear program, and perhaps later expand that breakthrough into a comprehensive solution that accommodates American regional interests and values. In a September 13 editorial, candidate Biden stated an intent to rejoin the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal––the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action––in essence returning to the Obama Administration strategy on Iran. Whether the Iran nuclear accord can be translated into a broad United States-Iran accommodation of each other’s interests is a proposition that, to date, has not been tested.

No matter the policy differences on the accord, Iran’s nuclear program stands as one factor that arguably could prompt major American or other military action against Iran. There has long been a tacit consensus within the United States and among US allies in the region that Iran must not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. It can be argued that there would be sufficient American public support for military action should Iran approach that threshold. US action against Iran’s nuclear program could potentially touch off a broader and extended US-Iran conflict; indeed, the prospect of Tehran wielding a nuclear weapons capability is widely considered too destabilizing for the United States and its partners, such as Israel or the Gulf Arab states, to tolerate.

The United States and Israel. There have been few indicators, if any, of a significant shift in American public opinion on the need for an enduring and close partnership between the United States and Israel. However, there might not be a consensus on the policy tools that should be used to try to achieve a final political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians; in the past, some of these tools have involved criticizing Israeli policies and/or placing conditions on some US benefits for and transactions with Israel. The Trump Administration departed from the American tradition of attempting to play the role of “honest broker” between Israelis and Palestinians, especially when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there, and acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Anti-Iran Axis. The administration also constructed an anti-Iran “axis” consisting of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other Sunni Arab states and de-emphasized US relations with the Palestinian Authority. The coalition was an outgrowth of the Trump Administration’s affinity for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and UAE de facto leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as pillars of US Iran policy and Trump Administration efforts to devolve security responsibility to regional players. The Trump policy also muted American concerns about the human rights records of the two regimes and their controversial interventions in Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere. It is not clear that there is US public support for an enduring tilt toward the two monarchies, especially if doing so requires downplaying their flaws and their flouting of many professed American values. In the near term, Biden and his team might not continue “business as usual” with MbS until there is greater accountability for his role in the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. There is a possibility for Biden’s administration to closely scrutinize potential weapons sales to the Gulf states, including cancelling the Trump Administration’s proposed sale of the advanced F-35 stealth fighter to the UAE. The sale was announced several weeks after the September normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel. Further, Biden and other future presidents might return to the traditional US stance of attempting to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace rather than adopt the Trump Administration’s policy of arranging peace deals between Israel and Arab states without first securing an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

In the near term, Biden and his team might not continue “business as usual” with MbS until there is greater accountability for his role in the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Future Outlook

It can be argued that the Middle East region will continue to diminish in the constellation of American foreign policy priorities. There do not appear to be any easily identifiable factors or trends that would reverse the sharp public aversion in the United States to future large-scale military interventions in the region, especially in cases where vital national security interests do not appear threatened or the US homeland has not been attacked. Nevertheless, the region is vast and complex; the history of US involvement there cannot be erased, nor can the potential of major threats be ignored. It can also be argued that there is public support for small-scale interventions such as counter-terrorism or counter-proliferation missions; however, such actions have the potential to escalate into unforeseen larger-scale and dangerous engagements.

A major unknown that has the potential to cloud the trajectory of American Middle East policy in the coming decades is the relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran has long frustrated Washington’s efforts to stabilize the region and to secure the interests of the United States and its partners. Despite the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, it can be argued that Iran’s overall strategic capabilities are growing and not diminishing. Iran’s missile capabilities have been used to unexpectedly devastating effect against Saudi Arabia within the past 18 months, and the United Nations’ ban on Iran’s acquisitions of major military systems expired in October 2020. Whereas Iran’s power in no way approaches the strategic capabilities of such global US rivals as Russia or China, there are any number of scenarios in which Iran could potentially test the apparent American consensus to try to avoid new major military confrontations in the Middle East.

Kenneth Katzman is a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). This article is written in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of CRS or the Library of Congress.